HONOR CHILDREN'S RIGHTS TO THEIR FAMILY
Children have a right to their family. Los Angeles County must prioritize relative/kinship foster care placements and remove all barriers for family members who want to care for children who have been removed from their parents. The County must also work to minimize the severing of family ties by ensuring that siblings remain connected to one another and their extended family.
Children who are separated from their parents and placed in foster care, even for a short period of time, experience trauma.(1) The very act of removing a child from the adults they know and love, regardless of the circumstances that led to their removal, is traumatizing. Furthermore, when siblings are separated and placed in different foster homes, their trauma is compounded as their lives are disrupted, their connections are severed, and they are ripped apart from everything and everyone they know and love. While the County’s primary aim should be to prevent children from coming into contact with the family regulation system in the first place, for children who are removed from their parents’ care, kinship care and joint sibling placements should be a priority.
When children are ripped from their families and placed with strangers, there is an increased likelihood that they will lose connection to their culture, self identity, background, traditions and values. Even if they are fortunate enough to return to their family, the time away with strangers can make it difficult to readjust to life with their family, their culture and the people they love. Some of the trauma of being separated from one’s parents can be mitigated by ensuring that children who are taken from their parents’ care are placed in the care of relatives rather than being forced to live with strangers. That trauma can also be mitigated through ensuring that siblings are kept together.
BENEFITS OF KINSHIP CARE & JOINT SIBLING PLACEMENTS
The benefits of kinship care and joint sibling placements are well documented. Children who are placed with relatives rather than strangers experience “increased stability and safety as well as the ability to maintain family connections and cultural traditions.”(2) Similarly, siblings who remain together in foster care have better outcomes and stronger familial connections than those who are separated.(3)
REMOVING BARRIERS TO KINSHIP CARE
In theory, California Law recognizes the importance of placing children with relatives after removal from their parents, as Welfare and Institutions Code 361.3 indicates a general preference for relative placement.(4) However, in practice, this section of the Code is vague and ambiguous enough to enable DCFS to interpret it in a manner that allows them to unnecessarily place the children with strangers over relatives.(5) For example, social workers and the court must consider “the best interests of the child” before placing them with relatives. But the term, “best interests,” is vague and ambiguous enough to essentially allow DCFS to come up with any number of reasons why a relative is simply not good enough. As explained in more detail below, these arguments often include criminal history for even minor and/or very old criminal offenses, or economic barriers; things like the relative’s house being too small or not having enough beds.
It should be noted that in recent years, Los Angeles County has made efforts to increase kinship placements.(6) Pilot programs that increase efforts to place children with relatives have proven effective and are being implemented department wide.(7) Despite these efforts, less than 60% of the children currently under the surveillance of DCFS are placed with relative caregivers(8) - an indication that more needs to be done to ensure that children who come into contact with the family regulation system remain connected to their families, and not placed with strangers. The barriers to kinship care placement are numerous, inequitable, often rooted in bias, and must be removed swiftly so that trauma is minimized in cases when detention is imminent.
Studies show that when they have the financial means to do so, most relatives are willing to step up as caregivers.(9) Unfortunately, some relatives cannot afford to take on the responsibilities of temporarily caring for a child without financial support. If Los Angeles County compensated relative caregivers at the same rate it compensates strangers to be foster parents, the economic barriers that prevent some relatives from being financially stable enough to serve as caregivers would be eliminated. Currently, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and Michigan compensate relatives and “fictive kin” at the same rate as strangers and are seeing positive results.(10) Two additional potential options for removing economic barriers to increase relative care placements that the County should consider include immediately enrolling relative caregivers in the County’s EBT program and providing them with guaranteed basic income.(11)
Bias & Discrimination
Bias and discrimination are other common barriers that many family members face when attempting to become caregivers. Judge Michael Nash had this to say when describing some of the biases relatives encounter, “Too many places take the attitude of ‘Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree — the parents have issues, so relatives must have those issues, too.’”(12) Relatives report that these biases are often racially motivated, go unchecked, and cause further harm by needlessly severing ties between family members. The extent of the harm caused by this type of bias and discrimination is unclear, which is one of the reasons why the Reimagine Child Safety Coalition recommends that the county create a civilian oversight committee that has the authority to investigate the innerworkings of DCFS.(13)
In addition to the biases previously listed, relatives are often discriminated against if they, or someone living with them, has a criminal history. The Welfare and Institutions Code instructs courts to consider the “good moral character” of the relative and other adults in the home, including (but not limited to) any history of violent criminal acts or child abuse.(14) However, the language of this section of the Code is so vague and ambiguous that it can be interpreted to deny relative placement to relatives who have no history of violent criminal offenses or child abuse. In practice, no matter what the charge or how long ago the offense in question may have occurred, many capable relatives are barred from taking on the role of caregiver to children they love and want to be supportive of during one of the most traumatic and painful experiences of their lives - being ripped apart from their parents. In an effort to reduce discrimination based on criminal history and remove this barrier for relatives who do not pose any safety threat to children, LA County must thoroughly examine its policy and consider adopting model licensing standards, as recommended by the American Bar Association and Generations United.(15) These standards, which are supported by alumni of the foster care,(16) prioritize children’s safety while offering reasonable guidelines for criminal background checks that do not result in the overwhelming elimination of otherwise capable and loving adults from consideration for relative placements.
Home Studies & Licenses
Even if a relative or kinship caregiver is financially stable and has no criminal record, they may face barriers in the home studies and license requirements set by the Resource Family Approval (RFA) process.(17) The RFA process can pose significant barriers to family members who are looking to provide safety and refuge for a child who has been removed from their parents’ care.(18) For example, if a relative’s home is deemed too small, or they don’t have enough bedrooms for all of the children as determined by RFA requirements,( then DCFS decides that it would be better for the child to live with strangers than to live in a safe and loving home with people who know and care about them. In these cases, biased and arbitrary standards are prioritized over the best interest of the children. Los Angeles County can and should eliminate requirements for relatives caregivers to meet non-safety related RFA requirements(19) and make every effort to provide relative caregivers with the resources they need to provide a healthy home for their kin. Coupling the elimination of these non-safety requirements with the financial support previously recommended will significantly reduce barriers for relatives and increase the number of kinship placements, which will in turn produce more positive outcomes for children who would have otherwise been unnecessarily subjected to stranger care.
MAINTAINING SIBLING CONNECTIONS
Roughly 70% of children in foster care have at least one sibling, and more than 70% of those children are separated from their sibling(s) while in foster care.(20) The best way to maintain sibling connections is to keep families together. However, when children are separated from their parents, the next best alternative is to place siblings, no matter how many, together with a relative caregiver - eliminating RFA minimum space requirements and providing relative caregivers with financial resources to move into larger homes, as needed, can help ensure that larger families with multiple siblings can stay together. If staying together in one home is not a viable option, the County should do everything possible to place siblings with relatives who are committed to maintaining those sibling connections and providing those relatives with the financial means to do so. In taking these steps, the County can ensure that it is operating within the legislative intent of Welfare and Institutions Code Section 16002(a)(1), which is to generally ensure that siblings are placed together when removed from their parents.(21)
What the Board of Supervisors Can Do To Keep Children with Family:
Children deserve to be with their families. DCFS’s current removal and placement practices deny children the right to their families by severing their connections to, and breaking their bonds with the people they know and love. We urge the Board of Supervisors to implement the following recommendations to invest resources in practices that will strengthen family ties and minimize trauma inflicted on children who come in contact with DCFS:
Provide monetary resources such as EBT and guaranteed basic income to relatives who face financial barriers to becoming caregivers
Establish a Civilian Oversight Committee with the authority to investigate, hold DCFS accountable for, and make recommendations to eliminate institutionalized bias that creates barriers for relative caregivers
Update policies and legislative priorities related to denial of potential kinship caregivers with criminal backgrounds (including anyone who has been included in the gang database)
Amend the RFA process to eliminate non-safety related requirements and utilize county funds or child specific placements to assist families who do not meet RFA requirements
Actively work to place siblings, no matter how many, together to maintain their connection to one another and their family
1. The Hidden Trauma of Foster Care https://www.themarshallproject.org/2020/02/11/the-hidden-trauma-of-short-stays-in-foster-care
4. See Welfare and Institutions Code Section 361.3(a).
7. http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/supdocs/151039.pdf; https://imprintnews.org/los-angeles/l-a-county-weighs-expanding-rapid-kinship-placement-program/50051; http://file.lacounty.gov/SDSInter/bos/supdocs/150934.pdf
11. See Reimagine Child Safety Demand #11 for Guaranteed Basic Income recommendations
13. See Reimagine Child Safety Demand #9 for Civilian Oversight recommendations
14. See Welfare and Institutions Code 361.3(a)(5).
20. https://www.casey.org/joint-sibling-placements/#:~:text=Thirty%2Dseven%20states%20and%20the,a%20risk%20to%20the%20other. ; Jones, C. (2016). Sibling relationships in adoptive and fostering families: A review of the international research literature. Children & Society, 30, 324–334.
21. See Welfare and Institutions Code Section 16002(a)(1).