Report

Strengthening Families Through Guardianship

Quick Summary

More than 500,000 children will close their eyes tonight as wards of the state in foster care They are waiting for the security, stability and love of permanent families. Foster care was created as a short-term safety net for children in crisis, however, on average children will languish in care for more than two years. More than half the children leaving foster care will return home to their birth parents, and about 18 percent will leave foster care to adoptive families. For some, however, reunification with their parents or adoption is not an option. For these children, a supported legal guardianship with a relative or another caring adult can be a way out of foster care to a safe, permanent family. Guardianship gives legal rights to a child's caregiver so that he or she can take responsibility for a child's safekeeping and make decisions about education and health needs. When it is necessary to remove a child from his or her family because of abuse or neglect, research shows foster placements with relatives are good for children. They are less likely to change schools and more likely to be placed with their other siblings.


Introduction

More than 500,000 children will close their eyes tonight as wards of the state in foster care. They are waiting for the security, stability and love of permanent families.

Foster care was created as a short-term safety net for children in crisis, however, on average children will languish in care for more than two years. More than half the children leaving foster care will return home to their birth parents, and about 18 percent will leave foster care to adoptive families. For some, however, reunification with their parents or adoption is not an option.

For these children, a supported legal guardianship with a relative or another caring adult can be a way out of foster care  to a safe, permanent family. Guardianship gives legal rights to a child's caregiver so that he or she can take responsibility for a child's safekeeping and make decisions about education and health needs. When it is necessary to remove a child from his or her family because of abuse or neglect, research shows foster placements with relatives are good for children. They are less likely to change schools and more likely to be placed with their other siblings.

There is growing evidence that subsidized guardianship programs help strengthen families and keep children safe and out of foster care. Results from federal demonstration waivers and statefunded subsidized guardianship programs show that providing relatives with financial support and services makes it possible for more children to leave foster care to the permanent care of family.

Guardianship programs are not only good for children and families, they help relieve an overburdened child welfare system. When a child leaves foster care to live with a relative as a guardian, the case is closed. Fewer cases will free up more caseworkers and will also help relieve a clogged judicial system.

Unfortunately, although federal child welfare funds can be used to pay monthly stipends to children whose relatives become foster parents or to support children with special needs adopted from foster care, no equivalent federal support exists for children to exit foster care through guardianship when reunification or adoption isn't possible.

To address this shortcoming in federal policy, many states have developed their own subsidized guardianship programs to support children living with guardians. These programs vary in assistance levels and eligibility requirements.

The federal government should be a partner to the states in helping children leave foster care for safe, permanent families through guardianship. Although federal waivers have been granted in some states to allow federal child welfare funds to support guardianships, these are temporary waivers and the authority to grant new waivers has lapsed.

If federal support for guardianship existed, an estimated 15,000 children in long-term foster care placements with relatives could leave the system for good. This support would ensure that children entering foster care in the future do not spend one day longer than necessary in the system when a safe, loving relative is ready to care for them.

Report Content

The Importance of Family in a Child's Life

Evidence suggests that children living in foster placements with relatives are as safe as those living with non-relatives.1 They are more likely to be placed with other siblings while in foster care and are more likely to be in the same placement (or living arrangement) one year later, which is an important measure of stability for children.2 Stability in a child's life contributes to improved health and education outcomes.

In addition, placing children with relatives helps maintain connections to their extended family, community and culture.3 For example, in American Indian and Alaskan Native (AI/AN) tribal communities, the use of extended family as a placement resource is very common. A 2007 report by the United States Government Accountability Office recommended that federal guardianship support could help reduce overrepresentation of African-American children within the foster care system.4 Guardianship placements are viewed as an important placement option because they allow children to maintain their relationships with their extended family and support the transfer of culture to the child.


Strengthening Families Through Guardianship

When a child is facing a crisis situation in his or her home, sometimes relatives step up to help by becoming foster parents. Currently, more than 124,000 children are living with relatives in the foster care system.When reunification or adoption is not possible, a legal guardianship with a relative or caring adult can be a way for a child to leave foster care for a safe, permanent family.

More than half of relative caregivers are over the age of 50,5 and many are grandparents on fixed incomes and unprepared to handle the unexpected expense of raising more children.6 Monthly foster care payments help defray some of the costs of care and help relatives who might have otherwise been unable to take the children. Approximately 12 percent of children in relative placements in foster care have been living with their relatives for more than a year; they may end up staying in foster care indefinitely if the relative caregiver needs financial assistance to help provide for the children. But foster care was never meant to be a long-term living situation for children.

Children, as wards of the state, and the foster families who care for them are subject to rules designed to safeguard children living in temporary situations. Being in foster care means that children have monthly visits from case workers and must have state permission for activities like school pictures or vacations outside the state with one's family. Being in foster care means being different from other children and living with a sense of uncertainty about what the future holds.


Guardianship Makes Sense For Government

In addition to being good for children and families, evidence suggests that supported guardianships can save state, tribal and federal money by closing the case and ending the ongoing casework and supervision that is required when children remain in foster care.7 Once established, legal guardianships also require less judicial oversight and time, which can contribute to lower costs for courts.8

States and tribes have recognized the need to support relative and guardian caregivers as an alternative to long-term foster care when reunification or adoption is not possible. Forty states and the District of Columbia have some form of guardianship program. Thirty-two states pay for the program with state-only funds;9 other states have federal Title IV-E waivers;10 and others use the state-match portion of federal funds available through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Social Services Block Grant.11

Guardianship programs vary widely in eligibility and amount of assistance provided. Typically, state-funded programs offer lower monthly rates to caregivers than the foster care stipend. When states fund their programs with state and local dollars, the resources are highly vulnerable to budgetary shortfalls.


The Need for a Federal Guardianship Program

Although many families who adopt from foster care are able to receive federal support to meet their children's needs, no equivalent federal support exists for guardianships to help children exit foster care when reunification or adoption isn't possible. Eight states currently have temporary waivers from the federal government which allow them to use foster care funds (Title IV-E) to provide guardianship assistance as a way for some children to leave foster care.12 Some of these waiver programs have demonstrated an overall increase in the numbers of children exiting foster care to permanent families—both adoptive and guardianship.13 Unfortunately, states without a federally-supported guardianship program have no means for obtaining a waiver to do so in the future, as the authority to grant child welfare waivers has lapsed. As waivers in the existing states are completed, it is not certain whether these programs will be provided continuing federal support. Absent a change in federal law that establishes subsidized guardianships and makes them available to all states, many children will not benefit from this critical route to permanency.


Policy Recommendation

When the difficult decision is made to remove a child from his or her home, the state and the federal government assume responsibility for the child's safety and well-being. Part of that responsibility is to ensure that the child can leave foster care to a safe, permanent family in a timely way. The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 provided federal direction for states to use guardianships as a way of providing a safe, permanent route out of foster care when adoption or reunification is not possible. Unfortunately, the Act did not set aside any financial resources to encourage implementation of this policy. While adoptions from foster care are supported through subsidies, guardianships are not. If such federal support for guardianships existed, an estimated 15,000 children living with relatives in long-term foster care placements could leave the system... for good.

Research tells us that current subsidized guardianship programs are working: offering subsidized guardianship to relatives provides more children with permanent families. These programs, however, as excellent as they are, are limited. Some of the programs have restricted any additional enrollments because of budgetary reasons. The programs being implemented through the federal waiver programs are time-limited and exist in only a few states. Many state programs limit which children and families are eligible for subsidized guardianship benefits. Neither the federal waiver nor state-funded programs have guaranteed funding: their futures are uncertain. It is recommended that a federal subsidized guardian benefit be established to support children leaving foster care for safe, permanent families with their relatives.


506,483 Foster Children in The United States

Fewer children would be in foster care if states were allowed to use child welfare funds to provide prevention services (avoiding foster care for some children) and to support post-foster care services to help others leave foster care quickly for safe, permanent families—through reunification with their parents, adoption, or legal guardianships. Savings created by the decreased need for foster care could be reinvested by States into a continuum of services to keep children safe and strengthen families.

In the United States, only 10 percent of federal dollars dedicated for child welfare can be spent flexibly to serve children and families. Approximately $709 million of a total $6.8 billion child welfare dollars are flexible.

WHO ARE THE NATION'S CHILDREN
WAITING IN THE FOSTER CARE SYSTEM
506,483 children in foster care
32% of foster children are between the ages of 0 and 5
28% of foster children are between the ages of 6 and 12
40% of foster children are between the ages of 13 and 21
Average # of birthdays a child spends in foster care: 2 birthdays (29 months)
42% of children experience three or more foster care placements
18% (93,521) of children live in group care or institutional settings

WHAT ARE THE NATION'S FOSTER CHILDREN
WAITING FOR?
251,020 (50%) are waiting to be reunified with their birth families
115,893 (23%) are waiting to be adopted
Average time foster children have been waiting to be adopted: 42 months

WHERE DID THE NATION'S CHILDREN GO
AFTER LEAVING FOSTER CARE IN 2005?
286,005 children exited foster care
153,335 (54%) were returned to their parents
50,599 (23%) were adopted
43,457 (15%) left to live with relatives (some through guardianships)
24,211 (8%) “aged out” or left the system at age of 18 or older
11,425 (4%) left for other reasons (ran away, transferred, died)

Data from AFCARS (2005), ASPE Claims Reports (2006) and ACF Budget Reports (2006)

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Read Full Section: 506,483 Foster Children in the United States (PDF)

References

1 Testa, M., Bruhn, C. & Helton. J. Comparative safety, stability, and continuity of children's placements in formal and informal substitute care. A paper presented at the NSCAW Data Users' Workshop, January 25-26, 2007. Washington, DC;
2 Ibid.; Analysis by the University of Illinois, Children and Family Research Center at Urbana-Champagne (2007), reported in Kids Are Waiting. (2007). Time for Reform: Support Relatives in Providing Foster Care and Permanent Families for Children. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from http://kidsarewaiting.org/tools/reports/files/0004.pdf
3 Rolock, N. & Testa, M. (2006). Conditions of children in or at risk of foster care in Illinois. Urbana, IL, Children and Family Research Center.; Wulczyn, F. & Zimmerman, E. 2005. Sibling placements in longitudinal perspective. Children and Youth Service Review, Vol.27, pp. 741-763.
4 US Government Accountability Office. (2007). African American Children in Foster Care: Additional HHS assistance needed to help states reduce the proportion in care. Retrieved April 1, 2008 from: http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07816.pdf
5 Macomber, J.E., Geen, R. Main, R. (2003). Kinship Foster Care. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from: http://www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=3108936
6 Children's Defense Fund. (2004). Financial Assistance for Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from http://www.childrensdefense.org/site/DocServer/financialassistance0805.pdf?docID=467
7 Kids Are Waiting. (2007). Time for Reform: Support Relatives in Providing Foster Care and Permanent Families for Children. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from http://kidsarewaiting.org/tools/reports/files/0004.pdf
8 National Abandoned Infants Resource Center. (2005). Subsidized guardianship. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from http://aia.berkeley.edu/publications/fact_sheets/subsidized_guardianship_2005.php
9 The American Bar Association, Casey Family Programs, and Generations United. (2008). Subsidized Guardianship Programs. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from: www.grandfamilies.org and http://www.grandfamilies.org/index.cfm?page=aboutus; US Children's Bureau. (May 2007). Summary of the Title IV-E Child Welfare Demonstration Waivers. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/programs_fund/cwwaiver/2007/summary_demo2007.htm
10 US Children's Bureau. (May 2007) Summary of the Title IV-E Child Welfare Demonstration Waivers
11 The American Bar Association, Casey Family Programs, and Generations United. (2008). Subsidized Guardianship Programs. US Children's Bureau. (May 2007) Summary of the Title IV-E Child Welfare Demonstration Waivers.; Generations United. (2005). Grandfamilies: Subsidized Guardianship Programs. Retrieved March 30, 2008 from: http://www.gu.org/documents/A0/GUGeneralFactSheetJune.pdf
12 US Children's Bureau. (May 2007). Summary of the Title IV-E Child Welfare Demonstration Waivers.
13 US Children's Bureau. (May 2007). Profiles of Child Welfare Demonstration Projects. Retrieved April 1, 2208 from: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/programs_fund/cwwaiver/2007/profiles_demo2007.htm