More than 500,000 children will close their eyes tonight as wards of the state in foster care. They are waiting for the security, stability and love of permanent families.
Foster care was created as a short-term safety net for children in crisis, however, on average children will languish in care for more than two years. More than half the children leaving foster care will return home to their birth parents, and about 18 percent will leave foster care to adoptive families. For some, however, reunification with their parents or adoption is not an option.
For these children, a supported legal guardianship with a relative or another caring adult can be a way out of foster care to a safe, permanent family. Guardianship gives legal rights to a child’s caregiver so that he or she can take responsibility for a child’s safekeeping and make decisions about education and health needs. When it is necessary to remove a child from his or her family because of abuse or neglect, research shows foster placements with relatives are good for children. They are less likely to change schools and more likely to be placed with their other siblings.
There is growing evidence that subsidized guardianship programs help strengthen families and keep children safe and out of foster care. Results from federal demonstration waivers and statefunded subsidized guardianship programs show that providing relatives with financial support and services makes it possible for more children to leave foster care to the permanent care of family.
Guardianship programs are not only good for children and families, they help relieve an overburdened child welfare system. When a child leaves foster care to live with a relative as a guardian, the case is closed. Fewer cases will free up more caseworkers and will also help relieve a clogged judicial system.
Unfortunately, although federal child welfare funds can be used to pay monthly stipends to children whose relatives become foster parents or to support children with special needs adopted from foster care, no equivalent federal support exists for children to exit foster care through guardianship when reunification or adoption isn’t possible.
To address this shortcoming in federal policy, many states have developed their own subsidized guardianship programs to support children living with guardians. These programs vary in assistance levels and eligibility requirements.
The federal government should be a partner to the states in helping children leave foster care for safe, permanent families through guardianship. Although federal waivers have been granted in some states to allow federal child welfare funds to support guardianships, these are temporary waivers and the authority to grant new waivers has lapsed.
If federal support for guardianship existed, an estimated 15,000 children in long-term foster care placements with relatives could leave the system for good. This support would ensure that children entering foster care in the future do not spend one day longer than necessary in the system when a safe, loving relative is ready to care for them.
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