When children can’t remain in their own homes with their parents, placement with other family members – over foster parents that the child has never met – is considered the next best thing by child welfare officials.
But when children have been in a loving, stable foster home for a long time, removing children to place them with relatives they may barely know can be traumatic and damaging.
That dichotomy is what led State Sen. Matt Brass, R-Newnan, to introduce Senate Bill 167. The bill passed the Georgia House and Senate unanimously and took effect after Gov. Brian Kemp signed it in May.
Georgia Division of Family and Children’s Services Director Tom Rawlings said the bill addresses an issue he has dealt with for years, in his time as a juvenile court judge, state child advocate and, as of last summer, DFCS director.
“One of the complaints I often hear is that you will have a child who has really bonded with a foster parent and who cannot go home,” Rawlings said. “Then suddenly a relative will sort of pop up out of the woodwork. It may be a relative with whom that child has no real connection other than shared blood or a shared name.
“Sometimes our agency has not known how to strike the right balance between attachment and kinship,” Rawlings said. “So this bill really helps our agency by establishing some clearer lines."
Brass’s mother-in-law serves as an attorney for DFCS in the Coweta Circuit, and over the years he has heard stories from her about things that didn’t go well, he said.
“When I first ran, I knew it was an area that needed to improve, and as a state agency, I knew it was an area that I could have an immediate impact on,” he said.
He said he had been looking for ways to make changes but hadn’t really found anything, until one day Joel and Jennifer Shinpoch showed up at his office. They are foster parents from Athens and had gone to visit another senator, who sent them to see Brass.
The Shinpochs had nearly had a child removed from their home to go live with a grandmother who had known she was in foster care but hadn’t done anything about it. After talking with them, Brass called his mother-in-law and asked her if she thought it was a problem.
“She said it certainly was,” Brass said. She told him where he could find the law in the Georgia code, and he met with Rawlings to discuss it. He worked with Rawlings and the legal counsel for DFCS to fine tune the bill.
“We ended up with what I think is a really, really good bill,” Brass said.
Under the bill, DFCS must make a diligent search to find relatives, or other people who have a commitment to and connection with the child, to provide a home for a child while the child is in custody of the state.
However, if a relative doesn’t take any action to provide a home for the child – known as a “placement” – within six months of being notified, DFCS and the juvenile court no longer have to consider that relative as a potential placement.
When parental rights are terminated, or a parent voluntarily surrenders rights, the court will no longer be required to initially attempt to place a child with a relative or “fictive kin."
Fictive kin is defined as a person who is known to a child as a relative but is not actually related by blood or marriage and is someone with whom the child has lived with or had significant contact with.
Instead, the bill gives the court more leeway in considering a child’s best interests when deciding on the child’s permanent home.
When a relative steps forward late in the process because that relative has just become aware of the issue, that situation remains up to the judge’s discretion, Rawlings said.
Before the new law took effect, DFCS was required to do a diligent search for relatives within 30 days of the child going into foster care and to report on that search to the court.
The agency has been required to continue the search during the entire time the child is in state custody, but SB 167 requires DFCS to report on the search at every court hearing. The court can also excuse DFCS from continuing the search.
Child’s best interest
If a child has been in a stable environment for 12 months and the removal of the child would be detrimental to the child’s wellbeing, the new law says the court may presume that continuing of that placement is in the child’s best interest.
With the change, judges are finally being given the discretion to allow DFCS to stop working with relatives who have known about a child in care, but did nothing about it for an extended period of time, according to Coweta Juvenile Court Judge Joe Wyant.
"Sometimes, a relative will come forward just before a termination of parental rights hearing, after a child has been in care with the same adoptive family for its entire life,” Wyant said. “It's really not fair to disrupt a child from the only home they've known because of a law relating to consanguinity."
However, there may be instances where a relative would be the best placement. Maybe they’ve tried to connect with the child but because they live out of state, bureaucratic slowdowns cause a delay, Wyant said.
"It just depends on the individual circumstance,” Wyant said. “This gives us some discretion not previously afforded to us."
The state has about 13,300 children in foster care currently. Last year, 7,400 left, and about half of those went back to their parents, Rawlings said.
About 12 percent went to live permanently with relatives, and about 20 percent were adopted or in a permanent home through guardianship.
DFCS tries to start looking for a relative even before a child goes into care, according to Rawlings.
“If all goes well, we will have grandma or Aunt Sally who comes right up and says ‘I know my daughter is not going to be able to take care of this child, but I would be happy to give them a permanent home,” Rawlings said.
When relatives are identified, if they want to take care of the child, they have to show it – by actions such as visiting the child and getting approved as a placement.
He said there have been some situations where relatives are notified, don’t take action, and the child remains with foster parents. But when it becomes clear that the child’s parents won’t ever get custody back, “sometimes those relatives who have already been notified change their mind and then they want the child,” Rawlings said.
Bill’s passage ‘humbling'
The bill will “ensure foster parents have more standing when deciding what is in the best interest of the child,” Brass said. “The ultimate goal of SB 167 is that children are placed in homes full of love and stability."
Brass said it was humbling to see years of work on the issue come to fruition with the stroke of Kemp’s signing pen, and that he looks forward to working with fellow legislators, Rawlings and Kemp “in producing more positive steps to empower each and every child in this state."