The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C.’s hidden foster care practice is harming families, advocates warn

At the center of the issue — and six federal lawsuits — are children who have already been failed by adults in their lives

7 min

The 5-year-old showed up in the same way that many children who have been suddenly taken from their homes do: carrying barely anything.

The girl’s aunt recalled opening her niece’s backpack on the day that D.C.’s Child and Family Services Agency placed the child in her care, after deciding she could no longer live safely with her mother. Inside, the aunt found pants that were too long, a shirt that was too large and a $50 gift card from the city that she would have to stretch.

“The little money I was making was just enough to pay my bills,” the aunt told me on a recent afternoon. At the time she was earning about $800 every two weeks and living alone in a studio apartment that cost about $1,000 a month. Then her niece arrived and, suddenly, she had to buy her clothes, provide her food and pay for after-school child care.

That first night, the aunt also realized she would have to find a way to help her niece process what she had gone through, because she had experienced more than any child should: “She was just telling me things and all I could do was cry.”

To protect her niece’s privacy, she asked that I not identify either of them by their full names. But the aunt is described in a federal lawsuit by her initials, K.H., and she gave me permission to identify her that way.

Her lawsuit is one of six that DC KinCare Alliance has filed on behalf of families against the District and the CFSA. The lawsuits argue that the agency has placed children in the care of relatives while circumventing formal and legal processes, allowing the city to skirt its responsibility to provide financial and legal support to those children and their caregivers.

At 12, she started running away. At 17, she started standing up for some of D.C.’s most vulnerable kids.

The practice is known as “hidden foster care,” and unlike the formal foster care system, it is not often talked about. Advocates for families say caregivers who have experienced it may not even know there is a name for it. It is also called “kinship diversion,” “safety planning” and “informal family planning.” No one tracks children in hidden foster care, but by some estimates, it affects hundreds of thousands of children across the United States each year.

The practice is national, but at a recent D.C. Council oversight hearing, advocates warned that its use in the city is harming local families.

Marla Spindel, the executive director of DC Kincare Alliance — a nonprofit organization that serves relative caregivers — spoke at the Feb. 24 hearing and provided written testimony. Through her testimony, she described how the hidden practice differs in concerning ways from the formal foster care process.

“Rather than follow both federal and D.C. law requiring removal of the child to foster care — preferably with a relative who has received an expedited temporary kinship foster care license — CFSA diverts the child to live with the relative, without providing the legally required due process, services or supports, including foster care maintenance payments,” she said.

Unlike foster care, she said, the hidden practice allows the agency to remove and place children without going through the courts.

“When CFSA diverts, no one ever checks whether CFSA had the necessary evidence that the child needed to be removed from the parental home in the first place. No one checks to make sure the child remains safe after the diversion or whether the parent addresses the issues that led to CFSA involvement. No one checks to make sure that a child is not diverted and returned to an abusive or neglectful parent over and over again,” Spindel said. “With diversion, CFSA’s power is unchecked and it is answerable to no one, nor does it have to provide financial resources to caregivers or services to parents to facilitate their reunification.”

Power unchecked. Answerable to no one. When we are talking about the city’s most vulnerable children — ones who have endured abuse and trauma — those phrases should raise our collective concern. They should have us, at the very least, listening to what advocates and families have to say, because at the center of the issue are children who have already been failed by adults in their lives.

I don’t have enough space in this column to offer you a comprehensive look at the hidden foster care practice, but I can tell you that lawmakers in other places have taken steps to offer families more legal protections. I can also tell you whom the issue most affects in the District: Low-income Black families.

I sent a request for comment to CFSA and spokesperson Keena Blackmon sent this written response: “The issue of Diversion is in litigation so CFSA cannot discuss it in detail, but we believe that the practice complies with both Federal and District law. CFSA values the voice and choice of family in making decisions of how to care for children when they can be cared for by another relative with the parents’ consent that does not involve a court or formal agency intervention. Informal Family Planning which was implemented October 2022, represents one of CFSA’s options for ensuring that children are provided with necessary care and assistance, ideally while remaining in the care of relatives, rather than placed in a foster home.”

Making up for birthday parties that were never had, group gives older foster kids a chance to celebrate

The foster care system has known flaws, and it makes sense that some grandparents, aunts and cousins would prefer to minimize their dealings with a child welfare agency or court system when taking in a young relative. There are undoubtedly situations where those informal arrangements have led to successful outcomes. I have witnessed them among my own relatives.

But those aren’t the situations that lead families to reach out to the DC Kincare Alliance each week for help. Spindel said many of those relative caregivers agreed to the informal arrangements because they were never told they had other options and feared what might happen to those children if they didn’t say yes.

Those informal arrangements, she said, can pit relatives against one another, lead to children being placed in homes where inspections and background checks weren’t conducted and leave relative caregivers struggling to complete even seemingly simple tasks, such as accessing birth certificates, which they need to apply for food assistance and to avoid losing public housing benefits.

“Basically, they set these families up to fail,” Spindel said. “They’re dropping these kids who already have trauma into the laps of these family members or godparents and waving goodbye.”

As K.H. tells it, she let caseworkers know at the beginning that she needed support and wanted them to stay involved. She said she told them that she wanted her sister, who is her niece’s mother and has a long history of mental health struggles, to get the help she needed.

“They said, ‘We’re going to do that. We’re here for you,’” she said. “I believed them. I trusted them. But that didn’t happen.”

What happened instead, K.H. said, is her sister blamed her for taking away her daughter, and her niece didn’t receive the same level of support as a child in foster care. She said her niece, who is now 9, is doing well and finds joy through dance, but she still talks about missing her mom and struggles with what she experienced.

“She thinks she has to stay in survival mode,” she said. “Sometimes, I have to tell her, ‘I got you. I got it. You don’t have to worry about it.’”

She tells her that, even though she carries her own worries about their future.