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Washington County may start looking harder for grandparents and other relatives to take children who would otherwise go into foster care.

Department of Social Services caseworkers already consider “kinship” caregivers when they need to remove a child. But currently only two families are taking care of related children who were removed from their parents. The rest of the children who have been removed — several dozen children at any given time — are with foster families.

Commissioner Tammy DeLorme has been emphasizing the need for “out of the box” thinking when families are in crisis. Last year, caseworkers were directed to be more careful in determining whether a child was in “imminent” danger — the legal standard for when a child can be removed. If a child is merely in possible future danger, there might be time to get the family help instead of calling a foster parent to take the child.

This year, DeLorme wants to make a big push for kinship care, possibly through special training to get caseworkers focused on the possibilities.

“For our own people to understand the value of going through that effort,” she said.

Going to a relative instead of a stranger’s house could make a big difference for Washington County children.

Children who are ripped from their family, even when they were living in a precarious situation, end up with serious trauma. They must leave everything they know, not just their parents, and live with strangers.

The losses start with their familiar bedroom — it’s hard for a young child to sleep in a strange room. And the losses add up, every moment of the day: they no longer live in their neighborhood, no longer attend their church, and do not get to see family friends and relatives. Often they must switch schools — losing all their friends as well. It’s a huge loss. And it gets worse for those who never go home, growing up in foster care.

Statistically, they are much less likely than their peers to graduate high school and are more likely to be arrested, homeless or dependent on welfare.

But children who are sent to live with family members often have better outcomes.

“Because of all those connections to their community, to their culture, the research shows they have better behavioral and mental health outcomes,” said Ana Beltran, a special adviser on “grandfamilies” for national advocacy group Generations United. “They’re less likely to flit from home to home. And it’s less traumatic if Grandma gets calling in during that removal process and comes and picks up the child. These children have more of a sense of being loved, fewer placements. They are more likely to experience better outcomes.”

It’s not a guarantee. Some kinship care placements fail dramatically. In 2015, Washington and Warren County Department of Social Services placed a girl with her maternal grandmother. Her mother was in prison. But the 13-year-old girl argued with her grandmother and tried to run away, staying with her aunt overnight. The next day, a family friend picked her up at the aunt’s house. He had just gotten out of drug rehab. The girl said she wanted to stay with him, so her grandmother called Warren County DSS and told them she approved of the arrangement. DSS approved it as well, not realizing that the child’s paternal grandmother in Washington County had shared custody of the girl. Weeks later, the family friend was charged with taking the girl to a motel, plying her with alcohol and then sexually abusing her.

The family friend, Shannon Dickinson, was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years to life.

DeLorme has acknowledged the fears her caseworkers have of choosing the wrong family member for a child.

That’s one reason why she wants to get training for her staff. There are ways to vett people, efficiently but thoroughly, to give caseworkers confidence that the child is in a safe place.

But it won’t happen if the caseworkers won’t spend the time searching for a relative or family friend.

“You’ve got to get buy-in from the staff,” DeLorme said. “Ask the family about kinship. Interview all the kinship relatives, looking for the safest place, rather than picking up the phone and saying, ‘Call Berkshire, I need a house.’”

Berkshire Farm Center & Services for Youth oversees the county’s foster families and places children.

Staff also need to learn how to sell the idea to the relatives. The good news: the child won’t be sent off to strangers, and the county will offer financial support to the new guardians. The bad news: the guardians will have to get inspected regularly and take classes to become licensed after taking in the child.

“They are going to be monitored and supported by us,” DeLorme said. “It’s a matter of how we present that.”

The idea is not new to Washington County. In 2016, 11 children were placed directly with a relative. But currently, only two “kinship” families are taking care of children, and both are struggling.

Beltran, who advocates for more kinship care, acknowledged that it is sometimes difficult.

“Not all grandparents and other relatives are going to be suitable,” she said. “And relatives have to deal with family dynamics.”

It’s also more work for the caseworkers, she said.

The most successful departments have a team that interviews family members face-to-face, inspects their homes and takes their fingerprints to check for a criminal background. In four hours, a family member can be approved as a temporary guardian for a child, she said.

“There are very good procedures that can be put in place, so the child does not have to sleep in someone’s office overnight,” she said. “It is challenging. But it’s of such benefit to the child that they should work through those challenges. It’s harder, but it’s worth it.”

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You can reach Kathleen Moore at 742-3247 or kmoore@poststar.com. Follow her on Twitter @ByKathleenMoore or at her blog on www.poststar.com.

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