Sunday, February 25, 2007

You age out of a system, but you don't age out of a family

Editorial: It takes a family
San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 25, 2007, pg. E4.

FOR ALL of the rhetoric about "family values" in American politics, the federal government certainly puts up a lot of obstacles to allowing foster youth to live with their family members.

There are many reasons why the government should be helping relatives -- most typically grandparents -- who are willing to open their homes to a child whose parents are either unwilling or unable to provide a stable home.

Various studies have shown that young people in a relative's care fare far better in life -- as measured by education, employment and incarceration rates -- than those who are bounced from placement to placement in the foster-care system. Also, those relatives are far more likely than a stranger or a group-home "parent" to continue emotional and financial support when a youth becomes 18.

"You 'age out' of a system, but you don't age out of a family," observed Donna Butts, director of Generations United, a national family-advocacy group that has been pushing for reform of the federal foster-care rules.

The underlying flaw in federal law is a financing structure that encourages the placement of children in foster care instead of with relative guardians. More than 500,000 U.S. children are in a foster-care system that is severely underfunded in most states.

The upshot is that the money (in terms of monthly support payments and services such as drug treatment or mental-health counseling) does not follow the child when he or she moves from foster care into the home of a grandparent or other relative.

U.S. Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, have just re-introduced legislation to rectify that problem by giving states the option to provide monthly support payments to grandparents and other relatives.

Their "Kinship Caregiver Support Act" also requires the state to notify grandparents and other adult relatives within 60 days of a child's removal from parental custody -- and to lay out the options for the relative who might be willing to care for the child.

U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, a Chicago Democrat, plans to introduce soon a similar measure in the House. Davis has seen the heartache and stress on relatives struggling to keep siblings together.

"In some neighborhoods in my district, half of the children are living with grandparents," Davis said.

The reality is that many of those grandparents can barely afford their own living expenses -- but they take in the children anyway, out of love and obligation. He believes the federal government should "ease the burden" and "provide additional rights" to these relatives.

In California, the state and counties have tried to navigate around the federal restrictions with programs such as "Kin-GAP," which uses a blend of state, county and other federal resources to help out relative caregivers. Still, it's not nearly enough money to make up for the federal restrictions.

San Francisco has been able to place more than half of its 2,000 foster youth with relative caregivers -- but at a cost to the city of "several million dollars a year" because of the federal funding restrictions, said Trent Rhorer, the city's human services director.

Passage of the Clinton-Snowe bill would "send a very important message to the system as a whole across the country that the federal government recognizes that permanency is important for kids," Rhorer said.

Another problem with the federal rules is that they impose the same standards on relative caregivers that they apply to strangers who take foster care kids into their homes. Again, this is a policy that might sound sensible at first blush, but becomes impractical in the world of a low-income grandparent, who has taken another child into the house. For example, the federal rules would not allow three children -- even siblings -- to share a room. A relative with a criminal record -- even a 20-year-old DUI offense -- would be disqualified from federal caregiver support.

State and county officials and advocates for foster youth have long been frustrated at what they see as "perverse incentives" in federal rules that keep children in the transitional system when they might otherwise find a permanent home.

"If we can't get them home, we should at least get them to someone who shares a blood relation when we can," said Miriam Krinsky, a policy director for the Children's Law Center of Los Angeles.

Passage of the Clinton-Snowe bill would be a good start toward instilling "family values" in this nation's child-welfare policies.


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