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Editor's Message
A Critical Dependency Court Resource: Relative Placements

Judge Dean Lewis

Summary: When removal from the care and custody of the parents is necessary to protect a child's health, safety and welfare, the first question should be: "Is there a qualified and available relative who can provide a safe and nurturing home for the child?" Contributing authors examine this issue from the viewpoint of the child's attorney, the CASA volunteer, the parents' attorney and the judge and provide information on locating relatives; bringing parents and extended family into the court process through family group decision making; and pursuing evidence-based reasonable efforts.

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This issue of The Judges' Page addresses placement of foster children with relatives. Relative placements, when properly structured, enable courts to comply with the statutory requirement to craft a disposition that is the least restrictive alternative.

Federal child welfare law supports consideration of relative placements for foster children.

You may not have been aware that:

  • Under federal law, in order to receive federal foster care and adoption assistance, states are required to consider giving preference to an adult relative over a nonrelated caregiver when determining a child's placement.
  • Federal law requires states to exercise due diligence to identify and provide notice of a foster child's removal to the child's grandparents and other adult relatives, accompanied by the following:
    • Instructions regarding the relative's right to participate in the court proceedings
    • Options regarding care and placement of the child
    • The requirements to become a foster parent
  • The Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement has recently expanded access for child welfare agencies to "locate information" from state and federal parent locator services, enabling those agencies to find relatives of the child as well as the child's siblings.
  • Federal law provides that state child welfare plans have in effect procedures for orderly and timely interstate placement of children that can expedite out-of-state relative placements.

When removal from the care and custody of the parents is necessary to protect a child's health, safety and welfare, the first question should be: "Is there a qualified and available relative who can provide a safe and nurturing home for the child?" Contributing authors will examine this issue from the viewpoint of the child's attorney, the CASA volunteer, the parents' attorney and the judge. In addition, readers will receive information on locating relatives; bringing parents and extended family into the court process through family group decision making; and pursuing evidence-based reasonable efforts.

Judge Leonard P. Edwards (Ret.), judge-in-residence, California Center for Families, Children and the Courts, shares the history of relative placements in court proceedings involving foster children; explains current preference for placement of children with family members; provides an overview of the social science that substantiates the preference for relative placements; and analyzes the challenges that remain in implementing relative placements.

Professor Bruce A. Boyer of Loyola University Chicago School of Law writes that relative placements now comprise 25% of children in formal foster care.  Boyer points out that current social science indicates relative placements minimize trauma, enhancing permanence and long-term outcomes for children and facilitating the preservation of important family and community connections.

Scott Trowbridge, staff attorney at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, provides a review of the provisions of the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act that deal with locating and engaging relatives in dependency court cases.

Marvin Ventrell, executive director of The Juvenile Law Society and a child's attorney since 1985, shares his thoughts on relative placements from the child's perspective. Ventrell gives historical context to the evolution of child welfare placement decisions and summarizes the numerous benefits to children of a relative placement.

Hilary Kushins shares her experience as an attorney representing parents involved in drug treatment and explains the positive impact of relative placements, while acknowledging challenges that may exist. She notes that from the parent's perspective, such a placement enhances the likelihood of a positive drug treatment outcome, enables regular contact between the parent and child concluding in greater likelihood of a successful parent/child reunification.

Judge J. Robert Lowenbach (ret.), served as a Colorado District Court Judge. He shares his vision of judicial leadership—in interactions with stakeholders and with parents—that promotes development of a permanency plan to create safety for the child while tapping into the support system relatives provide.

Vickie Scott Grove, executive director of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley in California, informs readers of the role the CASA volunteer plays in reaching out to all family members, including the parents. She shares that CASA volunteers need input from the parents and extended family to be fully informed about the child's past and advocate effectively for the child in court proceedings.

Lisa Merkel-Holguin, director of the National Center on Family Group Decision Making at American Humane Association, envisions a level playing field for parents and extended family members through use of the family group decision making process.  

Kelly Beck, an attorney working with Seneca Center for Children and Families, explains how to identify and locate family members expeditiously through family finding. She recites the mandate to identify, locate and notice family members as required by the Fostering Connections Act and identifies the barriers professionals have encountered in complying. She explains the solution offered through family finding.

Louise Cooper is the director of the South Carolina (Cass Elias McCarter) Guardian ad Litem Program. She shares how the program collaborated with the department of social services to secure a Fostering Connections family finding grant and explains the role of the GAL program in the successful implementation of family finding.  

Vivek Sankaran, clinical assistant professor of law at the University of Michigan Law School, draws our attention to the fact that the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) creates barriers to placing foster children with relatives residing out of state. He notes that  barriers include problems securing timely and standardized home studies, as well as the lack of judicial review when ICPC approval of a relative placement is denied.

Professor Donald N. Duquette, of the University of Michigan Law School, provides critical insight and guidance regarding the importance of meaningful child participation in the court process.

Judge Cindy S. Lederman of the Miami-Dade County Dependency Court is nationally recognized for her advocacy of utilization of evidence-based reasonable efforts services. Judge Lederman informs us that some rehabilitative services work, some make no difference in outcomes, and some may actually harm the people they were designed to help. She challenges judges and CASA volunteers to take a leadership role in multi-system reform to ensure that children and their families receive quality services that are effective.

Emily Krueger, information specialist at the NCJFCJ Permanency Planning for Children Department, provides web resources on the topic of relative placements.

Our thanks go to Judge Leonard Edwards (ret.) who secured most of the articles for this issue of The Judges' Page. Since the inception of this publication eight years ago, Judge Edwards has been active in writing articles and encouraging judges, attorneys, CASA programs and child welfare professionals to share their knowledge and experience with our readers. His commitment to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the National CASA Association is an invaluable asset to both organizations. We thank him for his continued support.

Editor's Note: For further information regarding the federal laws referenced, link to the web resources article in this issue.

The US Department of Justice has supported CASA advocacy since 1985 through its Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
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