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Hundreds of New York City children in foster care group homes could soon be placed with their relatives, under a pending change in state regulations that would speed up the certification process. At a February 3 press conference, John Mattingly, commissioner of the Administration for Children’s Services, predicted that the state would implement the revision, requested by the city last summer, within weeks.

The change reflects a growing recognition by the city that children in foster care fare better in family settings than in group homes. Right now, they are divided roughly in thirds between this “kinship care,” foster homes with non-relatives, and group homes. At the press conference, Mattingly pledged to do better. He announced plans to close at least 121 group home beds in the next six months, having already cut 473 beds last year.

But until now, it’s been difficult for ACS to move many of those young people out. A child placed in foster care by family court as a “person in need of supervision” (PINS), or by his or her parents voluntarily, has had to wait in a group home until a prospective foster parent gets the certification. This usually takes four months. “The frustration of waiting can dissuade adults from following through on the process,” said Karen Freedman, executive director of Lawyers for Children.

ACS sent a petition to the state last summer asking for wider use of emergency certifications. According to ACS, the Office of Children and Family Services was supportive of the petition and has already drafted a revised regulation. A spokesperson for OCFS didn’t disclose the timetable but said, “If there are better options than congregate care, we are always for that.”

Approximately 30 percent of the 3,728 children currently in the city’s group homes would end up with kinship placement under the revised regulation, estimates Anne Williams-Isom, associate commissioner for external affairs at ACS.

The move is part of a broader system overhaul by Commissioner Mattingly, who hopes to keep more kids in their own communities. In addition to closing group home beds, ACS plans to give agencies a financial incentive to send children back to their own neighborhoods. It will also stress providing preventive and after care services as an alternative to foster care.

Increasing kinship placements is a priority, Mattingly said. New York City places less than 30 percent of the 20,000 children in the child welfare system in kinship care—a rate lower than in some comparable cities, including Chicago and San Francisco. ACS recently completed an internal report on kinship care to determine why the number is so low.

The report wasn’t available by press time, but workers in the field offered two possible reasons: contract agencies tend to prefer licensed foster parents with whom they already have relationships; and the courts often grant custodian petitions, which some relatives choose over the more onerous process of becoming a kinship caregiver.

“I am looking at that whole piece to figure out what needs to be changed,” said Mattingly. “What you want to build is a system that makes it easy for workers, even in the middle of the night, to place kids with relatives after basic checks. If it’s hard to do that because the process is complicated, they won’t do it.”

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