Foster-Parent Red Tape Hurts Families and Taxpayers

Rules for becoming a foster parent are meant to keep kids safe. But many of these rules make it needlessly difficult to find appropriate homes for children whose biological parents are unable to care for them.

Every state sets its own foster parent licensing rules; the only federal requirement is a background check. Beyond that, as long as a state follows its own rules, it can receive federal reimbursement for financially supporting caregivers.

If an adult has lived in another state in the last five years, the federal Adam Walsh Act requires checking that state’s child abuse and neglect registry. The background check also looks for “barrier crimes.” If any adult in the home committed such a crime, a state can’t get federal dollars for that home.

Although the latter rule may seem reasonable when you look at the seven felonies on the federal list, the logic breaks down quickly when you see the barrier crimes that states have added. In Kansas, for instance, walking your dog off-leash (“permitting a dangerous animal to be at large”) is a barrier crime.

That is not the only sort of additional barrier that states have erected. Requirements can include recycling, homeowner’s insurance, up-to-date dog registration, the “correct” number of egress points (Native American longhouses do not qualify), and a hand-drawn scale model of your home.

In Maryland, it is against the law for foster children to sleep in bunk beds. Applicants in every state are also subject to a “home study” that includes invasive questions about their sex lives and relationships with their parents.

A glance at the forms that states require would-be foster parents to complete might make you think they are trying to discourage applications. The District of Columbia demands a notarized signature in blue ink, while New York requires a list of every address where you have lived in the last 28 years.

In a joint letter to the U.S. Administration for Children and Families this year, several reform groups described various less formal obstacles, ranging from fees that can’t be paid through official channels to state agencies that take more than six months to respond to applications, if they respond at all. The groups, which included A Second Chance, Inc.; Think of Us; Generations United; and New America’s New Practice Lab, where I am a fellow, surveyed 45 state and tribal foster care agencies and found that the process for officially licensing relative caregivers takes an average of 160 days. At some point, most people give up.

Recruitment of foster parents is at an all-time low, partly because people are fed up with this onerous licensing process. Meanwhile, children languish in institutions or on the floors of child welfare office lobbies—the result of low relative placement and a shortage of non-kin foster homes.

States do not actually have to license relatives at all. They can place a child with a relative in less than an hour. To get the same financial support as a non-kin foster parent would, however, relatives must first complete the entire licensing process. But relative placements are not usually planned events; they often result from a phone call or knock on the door in the middle of the night. And relatives who seek approval as foster parents are especially likely to need financial support, because they have a poverty rate twice as high as the general population.

The existing licensing process is demonstrably too difficult. Less than 30 percent of relatives manage to finish it. Worse, in states that define relative narrowly (e.g., up to the third degree of consanguinity) for emergency placements, kids languish with strangers for months. They cannot live with a godparent or even with a grandmother who never married their biological grandfather until the potential caregiver is licensed.

This is where federal law makes matters worse, because it requires the same paperwork hoops whether a state is licensing a stranger or a grandmother. (A pending federal rule would change that, allowing states to develop kin-specific licensing processes, removing or relaxing requirements for relatives.) This leads to ridiculous situations where Grandma has to attend an orientation to decide whether fostering is right for her when her grandchildren are already in her home.

Most states can waive at least some requirements for relatives. Common waivers apply to income requirements, age limits, and sleeping arrangements. When waivers are not allowed, however, a grandmother who is too poor or too old can keep the kids but does not qualify for the same financial support that other foster parents receive.

Nearly everyone agrees that kinship care is better for kids. Research shows that children who go to relatives experience fewer changes in placement, reenter state care at a lower rate, and remain connected to their families and communities. Not paying Grandma may seem like it saves money, but the downstream costs of not supporting her and her grandchildren are stark. Too often, families are plunged deeper into poverty or cannot stay together at all.

About 400,000 of America’s most vulnerable children live in foster care. Cutting the red tape that keeps them out of suitable homes is common sense, and it could change their life trajectories in ways that benefit not only them but taxpayers as well.

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