October 03, 2019 Article

Why Relative Placement Is Best for a Child in Need of Care

While a foster home can care for a child, there are often many relatives willing to step up, and there is no comparison to the benefits of a family’s love and connection.

By Avery Alexson Guidry

Child in Need of Care (CINC) is a legal term used in reference to a minor under 18-years-old who has been deemed as facing imminent harm while in the care of his or her parents, or similar parental figure, based on the judge’s discretion with respect to the governing law. There are various circumstances that can cause a child to come into state custody, and every state has its own guidelines for defining a CINC, however the typical reasons would be in cases of parental neglect, abuse, drug usage, abandonment, criminal prosecution, or other similarly aligned acts.  Some states specifically state that if a parent’s inability to care and provide essentials for their child is due solely the parent’s financial situation, a judge cannot find a child to be in need of care.  

In the event that a child is found to be in need of care, said child may be taken into state custody and placed out of the home while the parents work towards regaining custody of their child. At this point there are two options for where the child may go: either placed in a certified foster home or placed with a relative. The proper governing authorities inspect the home of potential placements, particularly for potential relative placements, in order to ensure that the placement is appropriate for caring for the minor child. 

The Acts of Congress

The core goal of child placement is to ensure that the child is well taken care of and has their needs properly tended to. However, this was not always the case, as there was initially a greater emphasis on a parent’s right to raise their child rather than the best interest of the child. Szilagyi, Moira A., “Health Care Issues for Children and Adolescents in Foster Care and Kinship Care,” Pediatrics Vol. 136, No. 4, October 2015. Eventually this emphasis on parental rights subsided in the wake of Congress focusing more strongly on the safety, health, and welfare of the child. To this end, the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) encouraged states to undergo an overhaul with their respective CINC procedures by granting incentives for adoptions as well as requiring that the states terminate the parental rights of any parent who had been involved in an ongoing case plan for 15 of the last 22 months prior to the passing of the ASFA in 1997, with the ultimate goal to reinforce that “children need permanency, stability, and a sense of belonging in a family for optimal well-being.” As a result, the states responded by adhering to the requirement of termination and increasing the rate of adoptions, thus ushering in a new way of dealing with children taken in by the state.

Following the enactment of ASFA, caseworkers and other child welfare operatives have gone further in their attempts to place children into the care of family members or “kin” in the event that the child or adolescent must be taken out of the biological parents’ home for his or her own safety. Additionally, as of 2015, there was a nationwide rate of 60 percent for children in the program to be adopted by family members or simply returned to their parents.

Since the ASFA, Congress has passed other acts, such as the Fostering Connections for Success and Increasing Adoptions Act (the Fostering Connections Act). The Fostering Connections Act in 2008 furthered the government’s focus on providing children with a suitable and appropriate place to stay as it “increased subsidies and supports for kinship care, guardianship, and adoption out of foster care and set out specific guidelines for states to improve educational stability and health care coordination for youth in foster care.” Szilagyi. Such legislation demonstrates that the government began to take notice of the positive correlation between an increase in the number of children placed with a family member as opposed to a foster home and the various upticks across the board regarding the benefits of the trend. The Fostering Connections Act primarily increases subsidies and supports for kinship care after several years of the practice yielding noteworthy results. Furthermore, Congress passed a law three years later in 2011 known as the Child and Family Services Improvement and Innovation. This clarified, reaffirmed, and modified the provisions of the Fostering Connections Act while simultaneously providing a provision that “requires states to monitor emotional trauma for children removed from the home, better track and enact protocols for appropriate use of psychotropic medications, and report on steps they have taken to ensure developmental health for very young children in state care.” Id. As recently as 2018, Congress created the Family First Prevention Services Act in the same vein as previous legislation. This most recent legislation provides for federal dollars to be utilized for the sake of supporting families, with several services on how to care for a child as well as mental health and drug prevention programs. This act also provides for states to have a large degree of control on how they go about using these funds for the sake of preventing children from coming into the foster care program and remaining in a familiar family unit such as relative placement.

The Effect of Foster Homes on Children’s Development

A majority of CINC are quite young with a need for consistency while they are in a crucial developmental period. Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption and Dependent Care. “Developmental Issues for Young Children in Foster Care,” Pediatrics Vol. 106, No. 5, November 2000. It is not uncommon for children to bounce from one placement to another while in the program for various reasons, such as the foster parents no longer being capable of caring for the child financially, the home experiencing difficulties with handling the child, or the family simply no longer wishing to take care of the child. All of these situations will result in a child being uprooted from a home they have become accustomed to and having to learn how to adapt to a new situation with the possibility of being moved again bearing down on their shoulders.  This often leads to children being disinclined in becoming attached to their foster parents, which severely impedes their mental and emotional growth. Every household has its own way of running things, and a frequent change in environments can cause severe consequences for a child’s mental and emotional development. The aforementioned detrimental consequences are the result of the portions of the child’s brain that are most noticeably supposed to grow and mature during this stage of development. The environment around the child heavily influences the structures within the brain responsible for “governing personality traits, learning processes, and coping with stress and emotions are established, strengthened, and made permanent.” Id. The detriments to a CINC being placed in a foster home are not limited to younger children, as older and more mature children are affected by the instability of their placements as well. Minors in care between the ages of 12–17 are in a critical developmental period as they transition to adulthood. During these years, minors are more self-aware and are more subjected to outside stressors such as puberty, school, and societal expectations. Lowenstein, Kate. Shutting Down the Trauma to Prison Pipeline Early, Appropriate Care for Child-Welfare Involved Youth, Citizens for Juvenile Justice, 2018. The instability of a foster home and multiple placements coupled with these outside factors are detrimental to the typical development expected for this age group. The fact that foster children have significantly higher chances of behavioral issues and diagnoses, such as being six times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD than non-foster children and a higher propensity for aggressive outbursts and tendencies, further illustrates the harm caused to a minor’s development as a result of being placed in a foster home.

While the government hopefully only intervenes and takes custody of children in cases of necessity, the placement of children into a foster home as opposed to with a trustworthy family member may in fact be against the best interests of the child. Humans crave stability—this is particularly true during one’s childhood and even more so during a child’s more formative years. During this period of time, children are wholly dependent on whatever authority figures and caregivers they are surrounded by and are unable to fend for themselves in any, if not all, capacities. As such, children have a natural propensity towards bonding with their caregivers. This bond is typically beneficial, as it allows for them to grow accustomed to a certain routine, manner of communication, and interpersonal relationships with other people. As such, the key to a child developing in the right direction is stability and continuance. While foster parents can provide care similar to and, given the common circumstances involved in CINC cases, at times quite possibly better than a biological parent, the mere existence of the foster family represents that the placement is anything but an example of stability and continuance.

Furthermore, the goal of CINC cases is the reunification of the child with the parent. However, a child being placed into a foster home can damage the bond between the parent and child, or completely prevent a bond from occurring in cases where the child is too young to remember the parent. States typically allow for some degree of visitation between the biological parents and their children in foster care throughout the process of working the case plan, and these visits are designed to allow the parents and children to see each other and bond under the belief that they will eventually be a permanently reunited. In most cases, these visits are done at some government building under the watch of the relevant caseworker, typically last anywhere from an hour to a few hours, and often occur once a month or once every few weeks. While the intentions of allowing the visit are pure and well founded, the methodology is lacking in its ability to actually achieve the desired result. Although the government is allowing the two parties to connect for a period of time, the brevity of the actual visitation and the unfamiliar environment that it takes place in alongside the amount of time between each visit causes the actual result to fall far short of what is intended. As previously stated, younger children in their developmental years are more reliant upon the bonds that are formed between themselves and their parent. In truth, the state is not helping the child through these allotted visits as “weekly or other sporadic ‘visits’ stretch the bounds of a young child’s sense of time and do not allow for a psychologically meaningful relationship with estranged biologic parents.” Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption and Dependent Care. These visits may have the effect of confusing young children further and may result in the children acting out towards their foster parents for a period of time following the visit. While older children may be less affected in these regards, this is dependent on the strength of the bond established between each individual child and their parents on a case-by-case basis. It also may be that an older child is as affected by visits as a younger child but less inclined to show the effects. 

One of the side effects of the foster care program is that a notable percentage of children and adolescents find themselves labeled as being a juvenile delinquent. As of 2013, researchers have found that this percentage can vary from an unremarkable 9 percent to a much more eye-opening 29 percent; as such, it can be concluded that a possible fourth and even nearing a third of all CINC may inevitably be a step away from criminal activity. Pearl, Lisa Beth Greenfield. “Using Storytelling to Achieve a Better Sequel to Foster Care than Delinquency.” 37 N.Y.U. Rev. L. & Soc. Change 553, 2013.

Given the several hundred thousand children and adolescents who are involved in the foster care program at any given time, the number of individuals who possibly will become involved in the delinquency system or at least commit an act of delinquency is horrifying. The eventual involvement in delinquent acts for these youth is so commonplace that a California judge once described a 13-year-old CINC who appeared before the judge in court under allegations of juvenile delinquency as simply "making his unfortunate way up the ladder from dependent . . . to delinquent.” Id. This notion becomes even more concerning as the likelihood of a minor in a foster home being involved in the delinquency system is triple that of minors in similar situations who are not in a foster home. Lowenstein. Furthermore, this harsh reality is seemingly not limited to children and adolescents who are currently in foster care as demonstrated in California where “once a child is placed in foster care, her general arrest risk as compared to non-foster children increases by 55%, and her arrest risk for violent crimes increases by 96%.” Pearl. Youth placed in group homes are particularly at risk for entering the delinquency system for a variety of reasons; indeed two-thirds of delinquency arrests referenced above come from group homes.

The Benefits of Relative Placement for CINC

The various detriments of foster care placements on a child are severely mitigated in cases where a family member can take in a child, as the family member presents a more suitable placement in that there is a bond formed prior to the incident that resulted in the child being taken by the state. Furthermore, family members are less likely to change their mind about caring for the child, and as members of the same family, there is a greater chance for stability and continuance for the child because there is typically a strong sense of familiarity. A key issue with foster care placements is that the child and the foster family have no sense of familiarity prior to the assignment by the state. In addition, regular visitation with parents are likely to feel more personal to a child placed with relatives as a result of being surrounded by family members throughout the process, as opposed to being in an “impersonal placement.” Additionally,

although children placed in kinship care or guardianship have many of the same risk factors as children in nonrelative foster care, recent studies have shown that children living with extended family have greater placement stability and that caregivers report fewer behavior and developmental problems compared with children in nonrelative foster care.

Committee on Early Childhood, Adoption and Dependent Care.

A certain Lafayette judge has a saying in his courtroom that “yesterday’s grandparents are becoming the parents of today.” There are many grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other relatives who are willing to step up to ensure that a child is properly taken care of while their parents work to be able to do so themselves. The foster care program may be designed to do the same thing; however, there is no doubt about which situation is best for the child in the long run. While a Good Samaritan can provide for a child, there is no comparison to the benefits of a family’s love and connection.

Avery Alexson Guidry is a third-year law student at Southern University Law Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. For the past two summers he interned with the Child in Need of Care Unit at Acadiana Legal Services Corporation in Lafayette, Louisiana.


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