If life is falling apart for Mom or Dad, and Grandma steps up and takes in little Johnny and Jane, she can’t send them to her neighborhood school without a court order.
That’s either as it should be or a terrible shame, depending on who’s doing the talking in Richmond, where an issue affecting more than 70,000 Virginia children has not broken neatly along partisan lines.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) recently vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for those providing so-called “kinship care” to enroll children in nearby public schools. He did so at the urging of both the Republican House speaker and a liberal Northern Virginia Democrat who does not usually have much sway with the governor.
Senate Bill 217, sponsored by Sen. George L. Barker (D-Fairfax), would have required caretakers to demonstrate to schools only that the parents had granted them power of attorney for educational purposes. It passed the General Assembly by wide, bipartisan margins.
McDonnell sought to amend the bill earlier in the session, so that in cases of informal kinship arrangements, schools may require that the caretakers obtain a court order instead. After the General Assembly rejected that amendment last week, the governor vetoed the entire bill.
“A power of attorney may be revoked at any time,” McDonnell wrote in his veto letter. “A court order may only be modified by a judge. Given the often fluid and tragic circumstances that typically generate kinship custody arrangements, a court order provides children and families with the stability, certainty and oversight to ensure that kinship arrangements are necessary or appropriate in light of changing circumstances while protecting Virginia's school divisions from being entangled in custody disputes. ”
Barker and others who had supported the law held a news conference Wednesday to express their disappointment with the veto. Barker called the move “anti-child, anti-family and anti-taxpayer.”
“Kinship care provides support and stability for children, enables families to help themselves, and saves taxpayers dollars by avoiding costs associated with court action and foster care,” said Barker, who noted that he and his wife were foster parents for many years.
He plans to bring the legislation back next year and to lobby the governor on it in the meantime.
Kinship care arrangements are often temporary — created when parents find themselves in some sort of crisis, dissolved once the situation has been stabilized, Barker said. Requiring a court order can add to the stress, Barker said, pitting relatives against each other as the supportive gesture of taking in someone’s children threatens to turn into a court-ordered termination of parental rights.
More than 70,000 Virginia children are being raised by relatives other than their parents, the vast majority of them in informal arrangements not established through social service agencies or the courts, according to Voices for Virginia’s Children, an advocacy group that had supported Barker’s bill.
Del. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax), who along with Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) urged McDonnell’s veto, said there is a need for court oversight.
“Situations involving children can be conflictual, and cutting the courts out it doesn’t change that,” said Surovell, who practices family law. “The difficulty surrounding these situations is exactly why you need to have a judge involved. ... Cutting legal corners typically does not make situations better.”