The federal government has paved the way for the cities and states to move thousands of children off the foster care rolls and into long-term "subsidized guardianship" with relatives, but New York State isn't likely to come up with the necessary matching dollars any time soon. State legislators, local officials and advocates are meeting this spring, with the first session slated for May 1, to develop new legislation that would establish the details of a New York guardianship program. There is no funding for such a program in the fiscal year 2010 budget, which means it will most likely be at least one more year before such a program begins.
Supporters argue that in other states, government-subsidized guardianship has relieved pressure on foster care systems and saved money, while allowing families more independence and greater control over their children's lives.
In New York City, nearly a third of the 16,500 children in foster care live with relatives in kinship foster homes. Subsidized guardianship would allow many children in long-term kinship care to leave the foster care system. They would remain with their relatives for as long as necessary, but without the same degree of intense oversight and costly monitoring by the government and nonprofit agencies, and without severing a child's legal ties to his or her parents.
"This is a win-win situation all around, for the children, for the family caregivers and the foster care system," says state Senator Velmanette Montgomery (D-Brooklyn). "Children will have a safe, permanent home with loved ones. Family members will get the help they need to properly care for their kin, and the foster care system saves money because it will administer fewer cases."
Then-President George Bush signed the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 into law in October 2008. The law was modeled after the Kinship Caregiver Support Act, which former New York Senator Hillary Clinton long championed. New York is one of a handful of states which does not yet have a subsidized guardianship program.
The federal law provides support for caregivers looking after their nieces, nephews, grandchildren and other relatives outside of the foster care system. To receive federal dollars, the state legislature must establish a subsidized guardianship program and figure out how to cover 50 percent of the cost of the program.
Stakeholders will meet this spring to discuss program details, including who would be eligible. While advocates hope that New York will be able to pass legislation this session, no one knows how long it will take to hammer out the fine points, says a source in the legislature. Senator Montgomery and Assemblyman William Scarborough (D-Queens) are among the legislators backing the effort.
Currently, many relative caregivers in New York receive financial support either as foster parents or adoptive parents. Advocates of subsidized guardianship point out that both routes pose problems. Foster parents looking after their relatives for long periods of time often complain that constant monitoring by the child welfare system is invasive. Because foster care is considered a temporary placement, relative caregivers also face pressure by child welfare workers to adopt. But adopting a family member's child can fuel familial tensions, and older children may not want to sever ties with their parents.
In Chicago, a subsidized guardianship program freed up the city's Family Court system and saved money because guardians, unlike foster parents, do not receive ongoing supervision by caseworkers and judges, say observers of that foster care system. In New York, they say, subsidized guardianship could help reduce the number of cases in the city's backlogged Family Court.
However, John Mattingly, commissioner of the city's Administration for Children's Services, warns that a bill must be crafted carefully so as not to dissuade foster parents from adopting.
"Those of us who have been in the field long enough know that most times, relatives will adopt if reunification is not a live option, if the agency supports them in their decision, and if it will achieve permanence for the child," Mattingly wrote in an email. "In sum, kinship guardianship can be the best option for a small percentage of children, but the State of New York needs to be careful to craft regulations for its use that will continue the emphasis on adoption for most children who cannot return home." Moreover, Mattingly says, the state should not move forward with kinship guardianship until there is permanent funding for the program.
Advocates say one of the main challenges is determining how the program will be funded: federal money will cover only 50 percent of the costs, and the state and the city must negotiate how the remaining costs will be divided. There is also the question of whether the state's portion will come out of the foster care block grant, which is capped, or from a different source. Taking money out of the block grant would mean less money for foster care, but it would allow the program to begin sooner.
"This will be hardest the part, especially given the budget," says Stephanie Gendell, associate executive director for policy and public affairs at the advocacy organization Citizens' Committee for Children of New York. "There is so much support behind the concept that hopefully the money won't derail it from becoming a reality."
Complicating matters, no one has pinpointed how much the program will cost, or how many New York City children living with relatives would participate. Most likely, children living with relatives in kinship foster care will be eligible only if they are expected neither to return to their parents nor to be adopted. If the program provides these families with a stipend comparable to that which foster parents receive, it could cost about $7,500 per child, per year, one source in the legislature estimated. Adding services to help these families succeed, such as respite care or family therapy, would bring up the cost.
The cost of foster care is far higher, however, because of the substantial cost of case management, administrative oversight, support services and Family Court involvement.
"More news at 11 around guardianship," said William T. Gettman Jr., executive deputy commissioner of the state's Office of Children and Family Services, in a recent briefing about his agency's budget. "But I think there's a general consensus that we want to move forward."