PHOTO: Stafford foster care

NUMEROUS studies have shown that children who have to be removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, incarceration of their parents, or other reasons fare much better when a blood relative takes them in. So why are so few kids successfully placed with family members instead of non-related foster parents?

Research shows that kinship care minimizes the trauma of removal from the home and provides these children much-needed stability that results in fewer placement changes and consequently fewer behavior problems. Relatives are also more likely than traditional foster parents to keep large sibling groups together, reinforce their cultural identity, and enhance their sense of belonging. Children in kinship care also have better mental health outcomes than those placed in traditional foster homes. And all of these advantages follow them into adulthood.

Under federal law, states must notify adult relatives within 30 days of a child’s removal from the home. A new state law passed by the General Assembly this year also mandates that social workers “take all reasonable steps to determine whether the child has any relatives who may be eligible to become a kinship foster parent.”

However, as The Free Lance–Star’s Adele Uphaus–Conner reported on Sunday, only 7 percent of the 4,795 foster children in Virginia under the legal care of the Department of Social Services were placed with relatives in 2017. The local numbers are only slightly better: 10 to 18 percent in Fredericksburg; 12 percent in Stafford; 15.6 percent in Spotsylvania. All are well below the national average of 32 percent.

“Although state requirements, federal law, and child welfare best practices prioritize placement with relatives, local departments in Virginia are not using relatives nearly as frequently as other states,” according to a report released last year by the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative and Review Commission. “Virginia’s low rate of placement with relatives can be explained, at least in part, by inconsistent efforts by caseworkers to identify relatives who may be willing and able to assume the role of foster parent,” the report stated.

Noting that Virginia’s foster care system, which relies heavily on non-related foster parents, has failed to meet the basic health and safety needs of the children in its care, JLARC recommended that executive action be taken to require DSS staff “to routinely search for the relatives of children in foster care and issue clear guidance to local departments on the existing policies that can facilitate the approval of relatives to serve as foster parents.”

Some children may not have close family members living nearby. Even if they do, the child’s relatives may not be able to assume the responsibility of raising them. But bureaucratic obstacles no doubt play a large role in the unacceptably low percentages of children who wind up in kinship care.

Getting certified as a foster parent requires following a “huge licensing checklist”—which is fine for people who volunteer to foster non-related children. But is all that red tape really necessary before a child’s own grandparents, aunts or uncles can take them in? Especially since, after placing the child in a temporary setting, social workers admit they are reluctant to move them again?

A streamlined process that prioritizes kinship care over traditional foster care, with adequate follow-up later as needed, would increase the percentage of children placed with relatives, even if it does take more effort by social workers to locate able and willing family members.

When the government officially removes a child from his or her home, it assumes full responsibility for that child until they are either reunited with their parents, adopted, or age out of the foster care system. The same stipends and other assistance, including medical care, that are available for licensed foster parents should also be made available for relatives who provide informal kinship care until they are able to obtain a foster care license.

That would enable more people with limited financial means to be able to open their homes and hearts to traumatized children at a critical time in their young lives.

Kinship care is clearly in the best interests of the child; therefore it’s also in the best interests of society. Removing any and all obstacles that prevent most abused and neglected children from being placed with their blood relations should be DSS employees’ main priority.

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