A New Law in Washington State Would Allow Foster Children To Stay With Relatives

Until very recently, children whose parents' rights had been terminated would be forced into foster care and adoption if a family relative could not pursue adoption themselves.

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When we think of the American foster care system, we tend to think of horror stories that stigmatize the state-by-state patchwork system of foster programs, like those of very young children sent to dozens of different homes where they are further neglected and abused. And while many of the heartbreaking stories are true, it is also true that there are people out there fighting to make substantial changes to help protect the kids who have no other choice. Enter Washington state.

The New Washington Adoption Law Will Support Family Connection

A new law in Washington state seeks to place children who have been removed from their parents—and whose parental rights have been terminated—with relatives without forcing the relatives to adopt the kids. Previously, if a child was removed from a home, they could stay with a relative but only for a temporary amount of time before that relative would be forced to choose to adopt or surrender the child to the state. In many cases, the kids were placed in loving kinship homes that offered stability and a family connection, but adoption was not an option that could work for the family, and so the kids would be placed in the foster care system.

When we consider issues of racial discrimination and the historical erasure of Black and brown families, this new law becomes even more critical to the health and healing of families that had children removed from their parents' care.

"What happens is you force the relative to adopt their relative, and what you do is erase their history because you erase the parents off of the birth certificate and you insert grandmother as mother," Shrounda Selivanoff, director of public policy for Children's Home Society of Washington told The Olympian. "Under these terms, we force relatives to enter into collusion with the system that erases family histories."

This erasure of family history extends to family culture as well, which is why laws such as The Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted to keep Indigenous kids with relatives instead of the foster care system, specifically to preserve their family and cultural heritage. By the same reasoning, kids in Washington may be able to find healing and hope by reducing the number of ties severed by the state foster care system under this new law.

The State of Foster Care in America

On any given day in the US, there are 424,000 kids in foster care, and in 2019 there were more than 672,000 kids who spent time in the foster care system. One-third of those kids were kids of color, including Indigenous children. And sadly, according to the National Library of Medicine Black kids experience a 2.4 times higher risk than white kids of having their parents' rights ended. For Indigenous kids, that number is higher at 2.7 percent.

But for kids who age out of the system, meaning they were not adopted and instead remained wards of the state, the numbers get grim. According to the National Foster Youth Institute, there are 20,000 kids who age out of the foster care system every year, and of those, 20 percent become immediately homeless.

Without a family support system that kinship care could have provided, these kids enter the adult world with almost nothing to help them stand on their feet. What's worse, only 50 percent of kids who age out will be employed by the age of 24, 7 out of 10 youth will be pregnant before the age of 21, and more than a quarter of all kids who age out of the foster care system will have PTSD.

The New Law Could Help Prevent Generational Trauma

Colleen Shea-Brown, a legal supervisor for the Legal Counsel for Youth and Children told The Olympian, "The shift in focus to relational permanency for children will help prevent unnecessary and generational trauma to children and their families in the child welfare system, who are disproportionately children of color."

In an email statement to The Olympian, the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families communications consultant manager Nancy Gutierrez said that with this new law, the DCYF will look to make sure that guardianship with family or a close family friend is a viable option before terminating parental rights.

"It will also make sure we are prioritizing placement with relatives throughout the time the child is in foster care," Gutierrez said in a statement to The Olympian. "Finally, it will expand eligibility to Relative Guardianship Assistance Payments to Title 11 guardianships. DCYF supported these changes to the law in the legislative session, and this is aligned with our strategic plan."

The legislation was signed by the Washington state governor on March 24th and will go into effect on June 9th.

To learn more about foster care and adoption laws in your state, read more at Child Welfare Information Gateway.

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