Thursday, November 15, 2007

Policy allows kinship care providers to be legal guardians, rather than adopting

A small triumph for children in foster care: Legislation recognizes that family ties, even when there are problems, are important in a child's life.
Banks, Sandy. Los Angeles Times, Nov. 10, 2007.

It's easy to be outraged about the news this week that county welfare workers have been stealing goodies -- gift cards, theater tickets and other treats -- intended to brighten up the lives of foster kids.

It's not so easy to get worked up over, or even understand, the complex institutional roadblocks that really make life difficult for foster children.

The foster care system operates under a shroud of secrecy in the name of protecting children's privacy. Families' official stories are generally off-limits to the public, so we report mainly on the scandals, as my colleague Jack Leonard did this week, or the tragedies.

Every story and column I've ever written about foster kids, the parents who let them down, the families who took them in, has unearthed a flood of emotional appeals from anguished families trapped in a system that appears at worst corrupt, at best callous and inept.

They beg me to intervene. But there's rarely anything I can do. I add their letters to my "foster care" file -- two giant boxes, bulging now -- and keep my eyes open for ways to share the gist of their stories.

When stolen "Wicked" tickets made headlines this week, I thought about a foster care story that didn't: a new policy signed into law last month that will make it easier for children taken from their parents because of abuse or neglect to find permanent homes with relatives.

I think it's a small triumph, for once.

More than half of the children removed from their parents in Los Angeles County are placed with relatives. But because of policies requiring social workers to find them adoptive homes, family members have risked losing the children to strangers if they weren't willing or able to adopt them.

Family dynamics often make that complicated. Adoption permanently severs a birth parent's rights, forcing relatives to give up hope that Mom will stop using drugs or Dad's anger management classes will take root and the family can be made whole again.

Rosalynn Barr didn't hesitate two years ago when a cousin asked her to take in her two young daughters -- a toddler and an infant -- who were living in separate foster homes. Barr had watched the cousin's older children cycle between relatives' homes and foster care for years.

A few months after the girls moved in with Barr, her husband and their two children in Long Beach, "social workers started telling us we had to adopt the kids or they'd take them away from us," she said. The toddler's former foster mother wanted to adopt the toddler, but not the infant. That meant the sisters would have to be split up.

Barr was willing to adopt, but her husband wouldn't consent. That left her squeezed between two sides: her own extended family "thinking I didn't love the kids enough to adopt them," and her husband, who was happy to raise the girls but didn't want to risk legal complications over inheritance when all four children became adults.

The couple asked instead for guardianship -- a popular middle ground for relatives. Guardians have the same legal rights and responsibilities as parents. They receive monthly stipends to help with the child's care, as do parents adopting from foster care.

But until now, in the eyes of foster care officials, guardianship was considered second-class parenting.

"I was made to feel like a bad person because I couldn't adopt," said Barr, who spent a year fighting to keep her little cousins. "Like their future was in my hands and I'm just throwing them away. I would sit at work and cry, afraid they might take the girls away."

The new legislation tilts the scale in a family's favor. It says simply that foster care officials cannot use a relative's preference for guardianship as the only reason to take a child and put him or her up for adoption.

It recognizes that family ties -- even when the family is tainted by dysfunction -- can be an important touchstone in a child's life.

For years, relative caregivers had few rights. They'd get kids dumped on their doorstep with little warning by a system that offered no financial help, no standing in court, no information about services to help them deal with children traumatized by abuse or suffering from neglect.

Children's advocates say the unfit parent's misdeeds often led to a bias against their families. "The attitude has been if the parent you're looking at had problems, the apple didn't fall far from the tree," said Kevin Campbell, whose research into the importance of family ties has helped changed that attitude.

Now California -- which has a higher percentage of its foster children living with relatives than all but two other states -- has a policy that reflects the change. And thousands of foster children stand to benefit.

Barr's two girls are now 4 and 2, "and I'm their mom for as long as they'll have me," she says. "We've got a connection, something to give them. We're a branch on their family tree."


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