Raising Kids Of Relatives Could Bring Federal Funds

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

A new federal law would steer monthly financial support to people who take in children their relatives have abused or neglected, a development expected to expand such assistance in Maryland and the District and perhaps launch a similar effort in Virginia.

Virginia currently provides no such resources for family members who shelter such children unless they are foster parents. Maryland and the District do.

The law will provide states and the District with $3 billion over 10 years to give monthly stipends to families who take permanent custody of juvenile relatives. The custody process is often faster than adoption and allows children to stay in the home of a close relative while still receiving federal and state support.

"This is another major step in helping children find permanent families," said Hope Cooper, a senior officer with Health and Human Services Policy at the Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped push the legislation. "It sends a very strong statement that we want to support children in homes, not foster care, which has always been meant to be a temporary safety net."

The law is among the most sweeping reforms of the U.S. foster care system since President Bill Clinton overhauled federal law to streamline the adoption process in 1997. It also tries to address a persistent problem in child welfare: Older children and teenagers do not easily find permanent or adoptive homes. So the law increases the rewards for such placements and gives states money to allow children to stay in foster care until age 21 instead of 18.

Experts said that about 20,000 of the nation's 500,000 foster children would immediately benefit. Also, 125,000 children set to be adopted could take advantage of the changes.

FACES of Virginia, a Richmond-based foster care research and advocacy group, estimates that as many as 15 percent of Virginia's more than 7,500 foster children could be eligible for assistance.

State officials said the law could give them more tools to work with foster families.

"The legislation really does open up new opportunities for children and families," said Susan Taylor, family placement program coordinator for the Virginia Department of Social Services. "At this point, we're looking at how this will fit into our current policy priorities and any financial implications."

In order to receive the federal funds, each state must provide matching funding.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act extends the informal arrangements traditionally made by extended families of children from broken homes. Children unable to live with their parents often were sent to live with a grandmother or an aunt for a time.

Jessica Ross, 28, of Roanoke has taken in two of her cousin's infant children over the past 18 months and was caring for them for a year without any state support. She is now a foster parent to them, but she likes the idea of permanent custody and being able to raise them without interference. "You want them to grow up in a normal situation, to be close to family," she said. "But it was very hard to support them and my own children as well," said Ross, who worked two jobs. "This gives us options."

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