Bridging the Gap Between Reality and Rhetoric: The Need to Reform Interstate Placement Practices to Expedite the Placement of Children with Relatives

Vivek SankaranVivek Sankaran, Clinical Assistant Professor of Law, Child Advocacy Law Clinic
Director, Detroit Center for Family Advocacy, University of Michigan Law School

Summary: The author makes a case for meaningful reform of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children in order to remove barriers to relative placements.

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The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act reaffirmed the importance of placing children with relatives when they cannot remain in their parents’ care. This legislation, among other things, provides federal financial assistance to subsidize relative guardianships, requires states to notify relatives of foster care proceedings, and offers grants to support family connections. Numerous studies finding that children in foster care fare much better when living with their extended families provide empirical support for these legislative efforts. At this juncture, the need to expedite kinship placements of foster children who cannot return home is beyond question.

Despite our strong philosophical commitment in support of kinship placements, our policies and practices lag behind—especially those involving the interstate placement of children, which is the focus of this short piece. The Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC), a uniform law enacted by every state, creates significant barriers to placing children with out-of-state relatives. First, the ICPC requires that a home study be completed prior to placement of a foster child with a relative. This home study may take months, if not years, to complete. Overworked case workers responsible for completing the study may give this task a low priority relative to their other, more immediate responsibilities. The worker may also fail to recognize the urgency of the situation because she knows little about the case and has never met the child. While the child awaits the completion of the home study, he or she may reside in an emergency shelter or a licensed foster home. And unfortunately, all too often, by the time the home study has been completed, the child may have developed a bond with a foster family that may then be used as a reason not to place him or her with extended family. The delay created by the process itself may be the justification for keeping children from living with their relatives.

Second, even if a home study is completed in a timely manner, no uniform standards govern the approval process. In most states, individual case workers have the discretion to determine whether a home study should be approved. Factors such as a family’s income, limited housing, and dated criminal history are routinely used to deny out-of-state relative placements. In some jurisdictions, child welfare agencies require that relatives undergo a lengthy licensing process, which further adds delay to this already cumbersome process. Furthermore, the broad discretion given to individual case workers also increases the likelihood that race, class and gender biases may play a role in the decision-making process.

Third, compounding the problems caused by the lack of standards in the ICPC home study process is the fact that there is no judicial review over this process. Under the compact, judges are explicitly prohibited from placing children in another state when ICPC approval has been denied. Additionally, few states have created an administrative appeal process to review home study denials. Thus, where a home study has been denied for inadequate reasons, there is little the parties in the case can do. They can attempt to persuade the other state to change its mind, can resubmit paperwork requesting a new evaluation of the placement, or can look for another long-term placement option for the child. Again, all of these steps create unnecessary delays and uncertainty while the child languishes in a state of impermanence.

The effects of these barriers to permanency will only increase in the coming years as our population becomes more mobile. Children are much more likely to have relatives—and parents—living in other states than they were forty years ago when the ICPC was drafted. And yet we have done very little to address these significant concerns. Although legislation is currently pending to reform the ICPC, unfortunately it does very little to address the core problems noted above. The new version contains no enforceable time limits for the completion of home studies. It creates no uniform standards to govern the home study. And it continues to bar judges from reviewing home study denials and from placing children with relatives in another state, even when the home study has been denied for reasons contrary to the child’s best interest. The refusal of state child welfare agencies to address these problems over the past fifty years may necessitate increased federal involvement in the near future.

Children in foster care face enough challenges each day they are in the child welfare system. We cannot add to the burdens these children carry by keeping them from their relatives for reasons having little to do with their best interests. Although we espouse a mantra emphasizing the need to expedite the permanent placement of children with their extended families, our actions have not supported our rhetoric. Meaningful reform of the ICPC must occur to ensure that our laws reflect our values.

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