To round off Kinship Care Month, the Biden-Harris Administration announced on September 27th, 2023 that the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) released three new rules that will enhance supports and equity for child welfare across the country. The rules will 1) support kinship caregivers, 2) protect LGBTQI+ children in foster care, and 3) expand access to legal representation for children and families in the child welfare system. The adoption and application of these rules will go a long way in ensuring that child welfare agencies across the country prioritize keeping families together and promote the equitable treatment of foster children and families.
1) Supporting Kinship Caregivers
New HHS Regulation:
Child welfare agencies will be able to adopt simpler licensing or approval standards for all kin foster family homes. This regulation will also require states to provide kinship caregivers with the same level of financial assistance that any other foster care provider receives, which will be crucial to strengthening the financial security of kinship families. The regulation makes it possible for kin to more readily become licensed or approved, and more quickly receive services and funding for children in kinship foster care, ensuring that children and caregivers receive assistance sooner during times of family crisis. An important note: this policy does not change or reduce safety requirements, but allows states to provide important new flexibilities, such as extending the age limits for kinship foster care providers to allow older kin to foster a child or allowing kin children to share sleeping spaces.
In Massachusetts, kinship care has been on the rise and is prioritized by the Department of Children and Families (DCF). This is because kinship care has been proven to ensure the most stable and successful foster care placements for children. In FY2022, 57% of children from Departmental Foster Care (DFC) were placed with kin (p. xi), while the overall kinship placement rate for all children was 39% (p. 13). Further, the initial kinship placement rate for all children statewide has steadily increased since 2018 by 126% (p. 64). While kinship care is already a priority in Massachusetts, the Children's League of Massachusetts (CLM) eagerly awaits seeing how new HHS reforms smooth the road to kinship care for all foster children in the United States.
2) Protecting LGBTQI+ Youth in Foster Care
New HHS Regulation:
Child welfare agencies will be required to ensure that children and youth who identify as LGBTQI+ receive a safe and appropriate placement free of hostility, mistreatment, or abuse. Additionally, child welfare agencies must provide children and youth with the resources and services that help them thrive and succeed. Further, the adoption of this rule would require that caregivers for LGBTQI+ children are properly trained to provide for the needs and sensitivities of the child related to the child’s self-identified sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.
While Massachusetts is a state leader in the United States on LGBTQI+ rights, more still needs to be done in order to ensure that inequities and systemic barriers are eliminated for the most marginalized and vulnerable communities. To ensure that children and youth who identify as LGBTQI+ receive a safe and appropriate placement, Massachusetts' attention needs to be focused on enhancing SOGI data reporting mechanisms across all child-serving state agencies. CLM's priority bill, an Act to eliminate disproportionality and inequities for at-risk children, aims to support this measure and codify this practice.
3) Expanding Access to Legal Services for Children and Families
New HHS Regulation:
Access to legal representation for children in foster care, parents and kinship caregivers will be expanded by allowing state and tribal child welfare agencies to use federal funds to provide legal services. For example, these federal funds could be used to help cover the costs of providing access to an attorney during civil legal proceedings when doing so would support a child’s needs. Further, a child welfare agency could provide a family at risk of entering the foster care system with legal representation to help to secure stable housing, secure public benefits, or establish custody or guardianship to prevent the unnecessary removal of a child from the home. Additionally, a child welfare agency could provide access to legal services for a parent who is seeking a restraining order from an abusive spouse and/or for transition-age youth exiting foster care to help them access legal documents that will help them achieve independence and stability. This is an important win for foster children across the country, as research demonstrates that providing independent legal representation to parents and caregivers in civil legal proceedings prevents children from entering foster care, as well as improves rates of reunification when children have been removed from the home.