Originally published by USA Today
Naomi Schaefer Riley, Opinion contributor
Georgia's foster care bill put some limits on kinship preference, a principle allowing blood relatives to take kids out of stable homes.
Earlier this month, Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp signed a groundbreaking piece of foster care legislation. While the local media has described it as a bill that would keep more children with extended family instead of putting them into foster care with nonrelatives — by requiring caseworkers to report on their efforts to find kin at each custody hearing — the revolutionary aspect of the law is that it would actually put some limits on what’s commonly referred to as kinship preference.
It states that “If a relative entitled to notice … fails, within six months from the date he or she receives the required notice, to demonstrate an interest in and willingness to provide a permanent home for a child, the court may excuse DFCS (the Division of Family and Children Services) from considering such relative as a placement."
To understand the problem this provision is trying to solve, it’s useful to hear the story of Jill Barefoot. In November 2015, Barefoot and her husband took two foster children into their homes near Athens, Georgia. The five-year-old girl had been severely traumatized. Her father was incarcerated — a minimum 10-year sentence — and her mother had been in and out of drug treatment. As Barefoot recalls, the girl “would have rages where she would kick, scream, hit, and bite between 15 and 20 times a day.” The Barefoots, who had fostered other children before, arranged for extensive therapy for the child. She started to form an attachment with her foster parents and brother and sister. She formed friendships in school and even began to participate in gymnastics.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp on Jan. 23, 2019. (Photo: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
She had little contact with her mother after she was placed with the Barefoots. After regular visitation, her half-brother was reunited after 22 months with his (different) father. But the girl remained with the Barefoots. Suddenly, after two full years, the Barefoots were told by their caseworker that an aunt who had cared for the child on weekends when she was an infant was interested in taking the child permanently.
Foster families can be more stable
The aunt had been considered for custody when the child was first removed from her mother’s custody, but she didn’t fill the most minimal requirements for foster care in Georgia. Her home could not be approved because she had a previous child protective services violation. The Barefoots were asked to start bringing the girl for short supervised visits outside the aunt’s home, which was still not approved. The girl started to regress at home, acting out after each visit, and her school also noticed a change in her attitude there, suggesting that she be held back.
Despite these signs, a judge determined that because the aunt was a blood relative, the girl belonged with her. Georgia’s Division of Family and Children Services gave the Barefoots ten days’ notice and after almost three years living with them, the girl was sent to live with her aunt in another county. The Barefoots can see her once a month for a couple of hours. She continues to refer to them as “Mama” and “Daddy.”
This story is sadly not uncommon. Last month an aunt in North Carolina was petitioning a court in upstate New York to get custody of a four-year-old child she had never met and who had been living with foster parents since birth. She cited the fact that she was the same race as the child — unlike the foster parents — as evidence that she was a more suitable caregiver.
Race was not an issue in the Barefoots’ case. Both the parents and the child are white. But the idea that a blood relationship or skin color is more important than a secure attachment that has been formed over the course of years with a child — especially a young one — is common among child welfare workers and family court judges. From the perspective of child development, it is deeply wrongheaded and sometimes dangerous.
Kin aren't always closest to foster kids
Unfortunately neither states nor the federal government keep any data on exactly how long extended families wait before coming forward to say they are interested in a child in foster care. But since most family courts and child welfare agencies have adopted the theory that it is most important for children to be with their kin, these stories are surprisingly common. There was a survey done of foster parents in 12 counties in Georgia (which included about 450 foster families) last year. Of the 102 surveys that were filled out, 21 said that no kin came forward. Four of the surveys were actually filled out by family members. Of the remaining respondents, a third said that a relative came forward to take in the child in under 9 months, almost half said that a relative volunteered between 9 and 23 months and the remainder took more than two years.
Jennifer Shinpoch, one of the foster parents responsible for pushing the legislation in Georgia almost had a child removed from her home after 15 months to live with a grandmother who knew about her from the day she was born but never expressed an interest in caring for her before then. As heartbreaking as the separation is for foster parents, Shinpoch says, that’s not really the issue. “We’re adults. We can handle it.” But the kids, she says, “you’ve asked them to heal once” after removing them from an abusive or neglectful situation. “Are you going to ask them a second time to break another maternal and paternal bond?”
Last year Arizona passed similar legislation to end the effects of this policy on infants, asking courts to consider the best interests of the child over other considerations like kin connection if an infant has been with a foster family for nine months. Darcy Olsen, the founder of Generation Justice, which advocated for the law in Arizona explains: These laws say that “if biological relatives fail to step up early, a child in foster care can stay where they are bonded and loved. It’s that simple, and it’s literally life-saving.”
Naomi Schaefer Riley is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute studying child welfare. Follow her on Twitter: @NaomiSRiley