WASHINGTON (CN) — A couple yanked out of their retirement to Spain. A 63-year-old suddenly parenting six grandchildren. A woman forced to leave her senior living facility so she could take custody of three grandchildren.
These are the realities faced by those who want to keep their relatives from being thrust into an unfamiliar foster care home. Frequently, grandparents are suddenly parents again as they hope to keep children out of the system.
Depending on the state, relatives can face the hurdles of a complex and lengthy process before taking custody or having access to some financial aid for children. Those caregivers have to complete the arduous licensing process before getting access to reimbursements for expenses.
To reduce the burden on family members fostering relatives, the Biden administration has proposed formalizing federal recommendations that would let local child welfare agencies ease licensing standards.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimated in 2021 that the foster care system included 391,098 children, 35% of whom are in the care of a relative in what is legally defined as kinship foster family homes.
“Today, nearly a third of children in foster care are being raised by kin — many of whom are grandparents,” President Joe Biden said in a 2022 proclamation. “This helps children retain family bonds and a sense of cultural identity, which are so important to a child’s resilience and well-being.”
Thirty-nine states fully administer their child welfare system. In California, Colorado, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia, county governments fully oversee the system. Nevada and Wisconsin share administration between the state and counties.
State and local regulations take their baseline from federal licensing requirements, which include fingerprinting and background checks. They can impose additional requirements but cannot require less than the federal rules. Tennessee, for example, also requires a home study, five references and a training program.
The HHS proposal for kinship foster homes would allow state and local child welfare agencies to adopt different licensing standards when the parties are related by blood, marriage, adoption or an otherwise “emotionally significant relationship with the child, such as godparents, and close family friends.” It would encourage agencies to hold those caregivers only to federal standards, rather than additional requirements instituted by state and local agencies. Regardless of whether the caregiver is related to the child, however, the federal background check requirements would still apply.
“As this new proposed regulation gives states and tribes the ability to adopt separate licensing standards for relatives and other kin, we encourage agencies to place as few burdens as possible on kin, consistent with the safety and well-being of the child,” HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said in a press release.
Under former President Donald Trump, HHS provided guidance in December 2020 to welfare agencies to encourage eased licensing burdens. The proposed move under Biden’s administration formalizes that guidance.
Marla Spindel, executive director of the DC KinCare Alliance, leads an organization that provides legal services to relative caregivers and supports the proposed regulation. She said many states and the District of Columbia already provide waivers to certain regulations for related caregivers, but it’s not unilateral.
The District of Columbia provides waivers to several nonsafety related licensing requirements for related caregivers, such as rules on the number of bedrooms in a house or the number of foster children a certain age living in the home.
“Those can be pretty restrictive, especially for low-income people who are living in smaller places,” Spindel said. “It’s definitely been invaluable to relatives to have those waivers in place so they can meet licensing requirements and have it done quickly.”