On December 1, 2021, ProPublica and The New York Times Magazine published an article titled, ‘They Took Us Away From Each Other’: Lost Inside America’s Shadow Foster System” by reporter Lizzie Presser.
The article details what some have labeled diversion from foster care by using informal kinship care placements. It doesn’t question kinship care, but it raises a number of concerns: How voluntary is the practice for families? Whether or not children are being denied services that would come through the formal foster care system? How families maybe denied legal representation that is provided in some states through foster care?
Presser begins by sharing the story of two sisters, Heaven and Molly, from Cherokee County, North Carolina and the mental, physical, and social consequences resulting from their diversion and the family and basic services they never received. She examines the oversight and accountability by the Cherokee County Department of Social Services, and how other child-welfare agencies across the country might be operating in a similar unregulated, and potentially unconstitutional, manner. According to the story:
“…over the past decade, states have increasingly institutionalized hidden foster care, through statutes and departmental policies. Rather than bringing the results of an investigation before a judge, caseworkers persuade parents to send their children to live with someone they know, often by threatening a foster placement if they refuse. Parents, unsure whether caseworkers have the evidence to remove their children in a court proceeding, choose the option that, at first glance, appears to give them more control…
The government isn’t required to ensure the safety of placements with the thorough home visits and health screenings that federal law requires with foster care. Relatives or family friends, often under pressure to take children into their homes, don’t receive a boarding fee to raise them; they usually don’t even have the legal authority to enroll them in school or take them to a doctor. In many states, departments simply close the cases, ending the assistance that child-welfare workers can provide. Because nobody monitors the children after they are moved, it’s impossible to know what happens to them while no one is watching.”
The article details the story of the two sisters in Cherokee County, and how they are removed from their home after their mother’s death and the father’s drug addiction. They are placed through various “custody and visitation agreements” or other state-based legal forms that sometimes allow the transfer of children.
According to the story, estimates are that roughly 250,000 children and youth are moved into care this way with most states not tracking how many children diverted. Texas started to track this after a 2015 child death during such a placement. In 2014, approximately 34,000 children were placed through Texas safety-plan placement agreements (compared to 17,357 that entered Texas formal foster care that same year).
The article notes that a “Hidden Foster Care Working Group,” a coalition of advocates for parents, children, and caregivers, compiled a list of principles and sent it to the Children’s Bureau. They ask that families never be separated when there isn’t immediate danger. They ask that parents have the right to free counsel whenever an agency takes their children. They ask that agencies notify caregivers about their rights and available resources. And they ask that hidden foster care, if it does occur, is brief and includes a plan to return home.
The authors point out that any reform will need to accommodate a wide array of experiences with informal placements. Some families prefer to avoid family court at all costs. After a child-protective investigation, some parents might decide that sending a child to live with a relative is what they want.