In February, the federal Administration for Children and Families proposed revising the definition of “foster family home” to let each state and tribal child-welfare agency adopt different standards for certifying relatives and non-relatives as foster parents. The idea is to make it easier for a foster child’s relatives to be caregivers—and to make sure they get paid the same amount as non-relative caregivers when they do.
In principle, this policy shift may sound like a good idea. Presumably, the state shouldn’t have to do as much to prepare the relative caregiver, who already knows the child. And can’t we trust a relative more than a non-relative? Well, yes and no. The relatives in question are taking in a child only after the state has intervened—and they want to be paid to do it. It’s not a simple matter of a relative stepping in voluntarily to help a child in need.
In fact, subjecting relative and non-relative caregivers to different standards doesn’t make much sense. The new rule notes that “relatives and kin who provide care for a child in foster care may be denied a foster family home license or approval because they have not met strict licensing standards, including non-safety standards that the state may waive under current federal law.” The authors of the new rule say they don’t want to change any standards related to safety. Rather, they want to change arcane rules concerning things like the number of bedrooms required in a home or proximity to well-water. But if these standards really have nothing to do with safety, why do we make non-relatives meet them? Perhaps we should revise the standards across the board.
In truth, there are plenty of regulations about who can foster that have nothing to do with safety. In 2018, Bill Johnson applied to become a foster parent to his own grandson, who was removed from his mother’s care. The state of Michigan turned him down because it refused to place a foster child in a home where a gun is present. Johnson is a former marine and longtime hunter who, with his wife, owns a fishing-tackle shop. He has several guns that he keeps locked up, and one that he has a permit to carry. In another case, a longtime foster parent in Maryland was not allowed to take in children anymore because she lived on a farm, and kids might be harmed by equipment or by falling in her barn. Neither relatives nor non-relatives should be forced to abide by these kinds of rules.
The ACF’s rule change also creates separate tracks for training relatives and non-relatives. Advocates say that, while nonrelatives must be trained for a wide range of possible foster children, relatives need to be trained only to care for a specific child, whom they already know. But the truth is that many relatives are totally unprepared for the kinds of trauma kids in the foster system have gone through and for the behaviors they often exhibit. A few years ago, I interviewed a foster mother in Massachusetts who had taken in a teenage girl after her behavior had become so uncontrollable that the child’s own grandmother felt unsafe with her around. If relatives wish to take in children who have been so severely abused or neglected that they need to be placed in the foster-care system, then they should get just as much training as non-relatives.
Training to become a foster parent typically takes about 20 or 30 hours. Given that the state will be paying a caregiver every month to take care of a foster child, and that we want every placement to be as stable as possible, requiring the same length of training for relatives and non-relatives seems wise. And if there’s some aspect of foster-care training that is unnecessary or unhelpful, then it should be eliminated for all caregivers, relative or non-relative.
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