If children can’t be with their parents, shouldn’t they be with their extended family? The question seems too obvious to ask. For all of human history, extended families have acted as surrogate parents when something goes wrong. But last month, a group of relatives filed a class-action lawsuit claiming that New York City and State officials have unlawfully prohibited them from acting as caregivers to children in foster care.
The timing of such a suit may seem odd as New York City has drastically reduced the number of children in the foster care system since the early 1990s and in the past five years, it has doubled the number of kinship placements. If anything, it seems extended-family care has become a more reflexive answer to many challenges.
The plaintiffs argue that they are being rejected as foster parents and denied the financial and legal benefits they would be entitled to because of past crimes that they say are either not serious or so old they shouldn’t merit consideration. For instance, one of them explained to the New York Times that he pleaded guilty only to second-degree burglary and “said his case stemmed from the police’s attempt to arrest him on a marijuana charge.”
The Administration for Children’s Services cannot comment on why they reject specific placements for children, but it is useful to ask just how much we should lower our standards in order to place kids with kin.
If we are going through the trouble of removing children from their homes because their safety is at serious risk, which is a rare and drastic step indeed, it seems as though we should be awfully sure of their safety wherever they go next. Unfortunately, there are a number of reasons why kinship care — despite the fact that it ensures kids can stay with someone they know and trust — is problematic.
First, kin often do not keep children away from the parents who abused or neglected them in the first place. Second, kin often suffer from the same kinds of dysfunction — abusive behavior, addiction — that parents do. Even success stories like that of J.D. Vance, raised by his grandmother after his mother was abusing and neglecting him, pose important questions. The grandmother had been in an abusive marriage and at one point doused her husband in gasoline and lit him on fire. One might reasonably wonder if that would be a good placement for a child who has been traumatized.
In fact, the extraordinary pressure child welfare agencies place on workers to find kinship homes has been stretched to its breaking point. Kids frequently wind up with relatives whom they barely know or who knew they were in foster care and said nothing about wanting to raise them for years.
Much of the impetus to rely on kinship care rather than sending a child to live with other foster parents is driven by race — the idea that we are breaking up too many Black families and that children should be placed with people “in their community.” But the ideology extends to areas where the vast majority of children in the system are white too.
And caseworkers are skirting the law to create more of these placements. Some of the plaintiffs claim that they have been caring for the kids unofficially because of their criminal backgrounds and so have not been compensated appropriately. A story in the New York Times Magazine chronicles the widespread problem of “shadow foster care” (also called “kinship diversion”), in which the state finds a child in danger and gets a parent to agree to send them to a relative, without taking them into foster care or getting a judge’s approval. And they often don’t check up on the kids after that.
New Jersey, as I reported last year, announced it was no longer in need of nonrelative foster parents because kinship care had been so successful. But if you look at the number of official kinship placements, it could not have accounted for that reduction. In fact, if the state’s numbers are correct, then more than 7,000 children were diverted into these unofficial placements in recent years. And the state has no way to keep track of whether these children are safe.
Removing children from their homes is a drastic step. If we have good enough reason to do so, we should ensure that those children remain away until we can determine the home is safe. If we place them somewhere else, we should ensure that home is safe, that the placement is done in a transparent manner with a judge’s imprimatur, and that we offer the foster parents (relative or nonrelative) adequate support. We are supposed to be a nation of laws, even — and perhaps especially — for children.