Foster Parent Licensing for Relatives: An Unnecessary Barrier to Permanency

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Marie CohenOne of my happiest days as social worker in the District of Columbia's foster care system was the day I was able to place an 18-year-old client with her older brother. This was under the District's emergency kinship licensing process, which allows a foster child to be placed with kin through an expedited “emergency licensing” process.

My client's brother now had six months (which could be extended to nine) to get his permanent foster parent license. During that time, he had to complete extensive paperwork and take a 30-hour foster parent training class — meaning six hours per week for five weeks.

And this turned out to be a big obstacle. The class he was offered was from 6 to 9 p.m. My client's brother could not make it then because he was often needed to pick up his own two children from school and supervise them until their mother came home from work. As I frantically searched for a foster parent class, I began to wonder why he needed 30 hours of training in order to care for his 18-year-old sister.

This was not the first case where foster parent training requirements posed a barrier to placing clients with family. In another case, a 10-year-old who had been mostly brought up by grandparents in Tennessee could not be returned to them because they were unwilling to undergo 30 hours of training. One could question their commitment if they were unwilling to take the time to attend training, but the fact remains that they brought her up for most of her life and she wanted to be with them.

I had another client, age 14, who had been in and out of the foster care system for 10 years. He had been ejected from one foster home and was in another where he got no attention or emotional support. His older half-sister, with whom he was very close, was willing to take him.

But her application was denied because she lived in Maryland, and the state required that there be a separate bedroom for my client. He was not allowed to sleep on a sofa bed in the living room. I was told the license would not be granted even if he slept in the bedroom and his sister slept on the sofa bed.

In this case, if the sister had lived in the District, the license could have been granted. She was willing to seek a bigger apartment but was locked into her lease for 18 months. So my client remained in his grim, neglectful foster home.

Situations like these would not occur in all states. The District of Columbia and 19 states require relative caregivers to become licensed as foster parents, according to the Child Welfare Information Gateway. The other states do not require relative caregivers to be licensed, although they may have to meet similar standards, as in California.

The District and other states that require licensing for relative caregivers should consider eliminating such licensing or establishing a more liberal set of requirements for relatives. There should be some standards, whether for a license or for a parallel process as in California.

Relatives need to have their criminal and child abuse records checked and need to be assessed for their ability to care for a child. Their residences need to be assessed for safety. But additional requirements that are not necessary for health, safety and good care should be eliminated for relative caregivers.

All over the nation, there is a big push to keep children out of foster care with strangers and place them with relatives. This policy stems from the knowledge that it is best for children to be with family and also from the increasing shortage of qualified foster parents. Unnecessary requirements should not interfere with the interest of the state in placing children with their families.

Marie Cohen (MSW, MPA) is a policy analyst and researcher who worked as a child welfare social worker in the District of Columbia from 2010 until early 2015. She is now blogging at fosteringreform.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @fosteringreform.