Tuesday, November 4, 2008

UPDATED NOV. 8: Kinship care and the making of a President

No matter who we voted for Tuesday, we all should be grateful for two things: First, let us be grateful that, when Barack Obama's mother decided she couldn't raise him for a while, no Child Protective Services agency ever got involved. And second, we should be glad that Marcia Lowry, founder and leader of the group that arrogantly calls itself "Children's Rights" (CR) was not suing the State of Hawaii from 1971 through 1979.

    This was the time when Barack Obama was being raised by his grandmother who, so sadly, died Monday. Obama has said a great deal about how important Madelyn Payne Dunham was to him.  On Tuesday, Obama made history – and odds are that wouldn't have happened had he not spent eight years living with Dunham in what now we would call informal kinship care.

    But in those cases where, unlike Obama's, child protective services is involved, CR is trying to curb informal kinship care drastically. The group has decided that the magic bullet for foster care is licensing. So the group's latest crusade is trying to strong-arm states into requiring that every grandmother, grandfather, aunt, uncle or other relative who steps forward to care for a loved one whose parents are accused of maltreatment jumps through all the same hoops and meets all the same hypertechnical licensing requirements imposed on total strangers. With only limited exceptions, the CR rule would be: No license, no grandchild.

    One laboratory for this awful experiment is Michigan, where CR won a consent decree requiring that all grandparents be licensed or obtain a waiver or "variance" from licensing requirements in order to be allowed to take in relatives placed by the state child welfare agency.

    Of course there are certain bare minimum standards, directly related to health and safety, that every foster home should meet. But that's not what we're talking about here. Michigan's foster care licensing requirements run to ten single-spaced pages. They seem to assume that every foster parent owns her or his own home. Virtually everything under sections called "Maintenance," "Heat light and ventilation," "Flame and heat producing equipment," and "Bathrooms" would be out of the control of a renter. Are grandchildren going to be denied the right to live with grandparents because a landlord doesn't keep the bathroom hot water temperature under 120 degrees or put screens on every window?

There are 41 separate requirements just for bedrooms and their contents. There's also a requirement that every dwelling unit on a floor higher than the second have at least two means of egress. I don't know for sure, but odds are the 954-square-foot tenth floor apartment where Madelyn Payne Dunham raised her grandson wouldn't qualify.

In Michigan, grandparents like Dunham who want to take in a grandchild placed by the state child welfare agency must either move or obtain a waiver or variance. The consent decree has no language emphasizing that waivers and variances should be easy to get; and, given how bureaucracies work, odds are it's going to be a very difficult process, with workers fearful of making any exceptions lest they incur CRs wrath should something go wrong. And there's another problem: Especially in poor, minority communities where CPS agencies are viewed, often rightly, with suspicion, there are plenty of grandparents who simply are too scared to allow that agency to micromanage their lives.

Worse, these new requirements are retroactive. Grandparents who already are doing a wonderful job caring for their grandchildren, sometimes for many years, are going to have to get licensed. Michigan has a typically lousy child welfare system overall. But one area where the state shines is in placing an unusually large proportion of foster children with relatives. Now the state faces the very real prospect of a mass expulsion of children from the homes of loving grandparents.

On one level, when you look at all those regulations one at a time, many of them make sense. Odds are they were added, one by one, in response to one horror story or another. But, like so much else in child welfare, the licensing requirement for grandparents flunks the "balance of harms" test. Yes, it would be better if every apartment had two exits and the temperature of the hot water never reached 121 degrees. But that risk has to be balanced against the risks to children's emotional well-being – and, for that matter, physical safety – when they are deprived of the love of someone like Dunham and consigned to the care of total strangers instead.

These restrictions are particularly ironic in Michigan which has been rocked with one high-profile foster care death after another - Joshua Causey, Ricky Holland, Isaac Lethbridge, Allison Newman and now, in a case that just came to light Monday, Johnny Dragomir. These cases all have one thing in common: The children died in the licensed care of strangers. (In the latest case, there were no criminal charges, though a county medical examiner said the boy died of malnutrition).

Indeed, CRs primary justification for its war against grandparents isn't safety, it's money. Under federal regulations, unless a foster home is licensed, the state can't receive federal reimbursement for the case. And if it is licensed, the state must pay the grandparents as much as it does strangers, something most states don't do now. So CR would argue they're only trying to help.

That is in keeping with the way CR seems to see children: as numbers on a spreadsheet or files on a shelf. Those who see children as flesh-and-blood human beings, for whom the love of a grandparent is more important than meeting all 41 requirements for the bedroom in which they sleep, can think of other solutions – such as pressing to change the federal regulations or demanding that states simply reimburse grandparents the same way they reimburse strangers using state funds.

CRs licensing obsession makes so little sense that I have to wonder if deep down it's not motivated by the same suspicion of extended families that permeates less enlightened child welfare agencies – you know, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" and all that. In fact, the research is overwhelming that kinship care is not only more stable and better for children's well-being than what should properly be called "stranger care," it's also safer. Or, as one of the leading researchers in the field likes to put it: "Fortunately, trees have many branches."

So I hope making it easier for grandparents to take in their grandchildren is high on the agenda of the President-elect.

UPDATE, NOV. 8: From today's Detroit News, still another example of the "value" of licensing in Michigan.  In contrast, also from today's Detroit News, an example of the right way to deal with housing issues for grandparents raising their grandchildren.  Just pray that the family profiled gets to move to their new apartment before CR sics the licensing police on them.