Los Angeles’ child welfare system – like many others – has a relative caregiver program that takes effect when a child is removed from their home, notifying known relatives of the removal within a 30-day period and giving them preferential consideration for the placement of the child. Blood or legal marriage-affiliated relatives who might be contacted include grandparents, great grandparents, sisters, uncles, cousins or even relatives of a spouse after death.
Per state and federal law, the courts are in favor of reunification or relative placement. I understand that perspective, and I respect it, but from my personal experience, I cannot say it is always truly the best living situation for a child.
I was taken away from my mother at 14 years old, placed with relatives and, at one point, in a foster home. But being in foster care, I did not feel as scared as I did with my family.
Now I just wish I had realized it sooner.
In my blood line, here were the options I was left with:
Biological father: He was absent for 10 years and I only knew him till I was 4 years old. I used to remember the stories my mother and siblings told about him hitting them so hard that they could not sit down when they were still pre-school aged. Living off soup and Ramen noodles, my biological father did not seem to care when we were starving at some points. When my brother and I were homeless, he did not bother to send money or food or clothes, and did not even bother to go looking for us.
Maternal grandparents: My grandparents had kicked my mother, my siblings, and me out of their house, causing us to be homeless. At some points, I was placed with them, but during the time I was in their care, I begged the social workers to take me away. They neglected me in so many ways: not buying me food and not picking me up until late at night—sometimes not until 9:30 p.m. or even 11:00 p.m.—from my volleyball games and track meets, forcing me to walk an hour home at night. They would go into my room and steal my money, and every month they took off for a couple days to Las Vegas, leaving me alone with my uncle who was in and out of jail and rehab. Every time I caught him doing drugs, my grandparents never did anything about it. I told the social workers, but my grandparents called me a liar. They made it very obvious to my friends and their parents that they did not care about me and only took me in for the government aid.
Uncle: In and out of rehab and jail. Abusing drugs and was not working.
Oldest sister: Unstable in her living situation, and when she did become my guardian, she left me at 16 to go out of state for an unsteady job.
Second oldest sister: We never really had a relationship, and I did not trust her because she told me she could care less if I was dead.
These were my options – or more like forced choices. The courts wanted me to stay with my blood relatives, yet none of them ever took a parenting class, foster parent class, relative caregiver class or even therapy to understand my situation and how I might be feeling. The court assumed that because it was family, I would be in a safe situation, but it wasn’t. I lived in fear for so long, not trusting anyone, thinking someone would hurt me, neglect me or abandon me again. And they all did just that.
The courts believe family is the best choice, but it’s just not true for all kids. What is also being overlooked now is that when the kids are taken away and family members take relative-care classes, the history, or pattern of foster care running in the family, is becoming apparent.
Some counties have recently begun to start implementing higher standards for relative caregivers, including offering specialized training for relative caregivers.
Starting on January 1, 2017, California created one framework for the licensing and approval of both relative caregivers and foster families through the Resource Family Approval (RFA) process.
RFA streamlines the different standards by which relative and non-relative families are approved to foster and adopt children in the state. Relatives now have to go through new risk and psychosocial assessment processes, home environment checks, and new training requirements, just like foster parents, as part of California’s reform process called the Continuum of Care Reform.
I was placed with my relatives from 2009 to 2011; if these standards were mandated sooner, social workers and the courts would have seen that my family was not fit to care for me, rather than trying to keep me with my blood line.
In my personal opinion, I believe by continuing to have these relatives and families go through the classes, it is therapeutic for the relatives to see and understand what the kid might be feeling in this tough situation. I believe all the procedures and follow-up visits that a foster parent or adopting parent has to do should apply to relative caregivers everywhere. I believe relatives should not be given any shorter or easier way to become the legal guardian of a child. In addition, I believe the courts should look at them as they would any other person, and not assume their blood makes them best option, because sadly, some cases, they are not.
Alexandria Maldonado is a senior at University of California, Irvine where she is a member of Phi Thetta Kappa, Honor Society, Psi Beta member, and a FYRE Scholar. She is founder and president of Foster Education Xchange, president of the Junior Board of Directors of Fostering A Change, and a youth speaker at Opportunity Youth Collaborative for the Children’s Alliance in Los Angeles.