'Kinship' Approach Shows Promise

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ACS chief, and former Family Court judge, Ronald Richter

Photo by: Marc Fader

ACS chief, and former Family Court judge, Ronald Richter

In 2011 the city's Family Courts formalized more than 1,200 adoptions. Some children became legitimate, legal members of foster families with whom they'd lived for years. Others were adopted by members of their extended families.

Children younger than 12 do not have a formal or official voice in adoption proceedings, although older youth must consent before an adoption can be finalized. This is one reason adoption may be a more difficult process for older children, ACS staffers say. Older children may feel a sense of loyalty to their parent, even when the parent's behavior has put them at risk or has caused harm.

A practice called kinship guardianship will, ACS and advocates hope, avoid that test of a child's loyalty and permit more children to find “permanency” with a stable, supportive family. While the practice is novel in New York, the Empire State joins 39 other states and the District of Columbia in recognizing kinship guardianship as a legitimate, long-term family placement that serves vulnerable children— and saves money too.

Under kinship guardianship, family members (such as grandparents, aunts and uncles) of children removed from the family home for neglect or abuse may assume many of the legal rights and responsibilities of parenthood without formally adopting the child or severing the biological parents' ties. Kinship guardians have the authority to make medical and educational decisions for a child, as a parent would. And like other foster parents, kinship guardians receive government support to care for the child. Funding ranges from about $20 to $60 a day, depending on the child's age and needs; a child with medical or mental-health challenges, of course, merits greater financial support than a basically healthy child.

Even though public money continues to flow to the guardians, kinship guardianship trims the demand for resource-intensive human capital. Regular Family Court follow-up hearings, which are required in cases for children placed in foster care, are no longer mandated. Neither are monthly home visits or regular case conferences. The expensive and time-consuming bureaucratic burden of following children and tracking outcomes is lifted, even though the support money stays in place.

But the potential of a new practice doesn't guarantee speedy results: Of the total of 1,237 adoptions finalized in New York City in 2011, fewer than 10 children were placed permanently via kinship guardianship, an ACS spokeswoman says. ACS expects that number to increase exponentially; nearly 400 possible kinship guardianship cases are under review for 2012.

And for all its promise, kinship guardianship comes with complications: It could leave vulnerable children in slightly less certain circumstances than under traditional adoption, because one set of adults has partial responsibility for their care—their kinship guardians—but their parents continue to retain parental rights.

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