Will New York State Pay for Guardianship, or Not?

A new law designed to give young people in kinship foster care a more permanent home won't force them to sever ties with their parents, but it's not clear how New York will pay its share of the program, called "subsidized guardianship," due to begin April 1. The Federal government will cover 50 percent of the cost, but Governor Cuomo's recently proposed budget does not account for how the state and city will divvy up the rest. The state legislature must decide whether the money will come out of the foster care block grant, which would likely mean the city would shoulder nearly the entire cost, or whether the state and local government should share the costs, as they do for adoption subsidies.

The city's Administration for Children's Services, as well as Citizens' Committee for Children and the New York Public Welfare Association (NYPWA), recommend that state and local government share the costs. "Our position is that this is a permanency option, comparable to adoption, and should be paid for using the [the same division of costs between the state and local districts that] funded adoption in 2010," NYPWA wrote in an emailed statement.

Until the legislature resolves the issue, the city and other local districts will be expected to pick up the tab for all costs not covered by federal funding. The city stands to save thousands of dollars each year in administrative oversight for each child who would otherwise have remained in foster care.

More than 5,500 New York City children live in kinship foster care with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and other relatives. Pending federal approval, nearly 1,000 of these could leave the foster care system and remain with their relatives without the intense, sometimes invasive oversight and costly monitoring of the Administration for Children's Services and the private agencies it oversees. These relatives would receive between $7 and $56 a day, depending on a child's age and needs, the same rate as adoptive parents. But unlike adoption, which can fuel family tensions because it requires parents to lose their legal rights as parents, children in kinship guardianship will stay legally bound to their parents.

"If there's a reason to keep the parents in the life of the child, then guardianship is the way to go," explains Mark Testa, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Social Work.

New York is one of the last states in the nation to start such a program. Testa, who has helped implement similar programs elsewhere, predicts it will affect about 500 New York City children the first year and 300 to 400 children the second year. But others guess these numbers might be lower for New York City because of potential months-long delays in Family Court.

At a recent NYC Bar Association meeting, Lauren Shapiro, director of the Brooklyn Family Defense Project, said that parent attorneys were already reviewing cases to see which might be right for kinship guardian. To qualify, a child must be in a certified foster home with relatives for at least six months and have no plans to return home or be adopted. Subsidized guardianship will be an especially welcome option for children whose parents have mental illness or debilitating addictions, Shapiro noted. With the new program, these kids could find stability without disrupting their bonds, legal and otherwise, with parents. "Subsidized guardianship gives all of us an opportunity to retain better outcomes for families," Shapiro said.

Meredith Sopher, director of child welfare training at Legal Aid's Juvenile Rights Practice, described a client who had bounced through six different foster homes before finding stability living with her mother's cousin, who planned to adopt her. But just before the girl's birth father died of cancer, he asked his daughter to never be adopted. When the girl's foster mother began adoption proceedings, guilt consumed the young woman and she ran away, ultimately aging out of the foster care system to live on her own.

Sopher wishes she had been able to offer the young woman subsidized guardianship, and expressed relief that it was now on the table. "It's a new option," Sopher said. "We're thrilled."