Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the state of Kentucky in a case about kinship care that may have long-term impact across the United States.
The high court passed on the agency’s appeal of a ruling by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that says that Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services has to financially support relatives who take in foster youth, even if those families aren’t fully licensed foster care providers.
The decision could be the start of a reversal of uneven financial support in many state child welfare systems. According to Ana Beltran of Generations United, about half of the state child welfare systems in the country permit what Kentucky does: an “approval” process that keeps most relatives from becoming licensed foster care providers.
Kentucky used to pay a monthly stipend of $300 to relative caregivers, but that plan was eliminated during a round of budget cuts in 2013. A bill that would restore the kinship care program is pending in the state legislature.
The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services declined to comment for this article.
Nearly 128,000, or 30 percent, of children in the U.S. foster care system live with caregivers who are family, according to federal data for fiscal year 2015.
Reliance on kinship placements varies widely from state to state. Arizona, Florida and Hawaii placed more than 45 percent of foster youth with relatives in 2015. In South Carolina and Virginia, only 6 percent of foster youth are placed with relatives.
The decision from 6th Circuit immediately impacts Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee. But of those states, Ohio is the only one other than Kentucky that approves non-licensed relatives and where related caregivers might be affected, according to Beltran.
But a legal precedent is now set that could eventually compel the other states that are not supporting kin in a fashion similar to non-relative foster families.
“This is the kinship case advocates have been waiting for,” said Rob Geen of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal in April.
If relatives are licensed as foster parents, states must pay them on equal footing with non-relative homes. This was first addressed in 1979, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of Youakim v. Miller that if a child met all the federal eligibility conditions, related caregivers had to be paid the same as non-related foster families.
But federal policies allow states to place kids with relatives who are not licensed. They can simply “approve” them as placements, a process that involves a thorough background check and training. But simple approval, unlike licensing, can come with less financial support, or none at all.
Beltran estimates that there are 20 children living informally with a relative for every one child living in licensed foster care provided by a relative.
“With the approval, the state doesn’t pay them the same as non-relative caregivers,” Beltran said.
“Many states don’t tell the relatives that they can be licensed according to the same standards as non-relatives,” said Angie Schwartz, the policy director for the Alliance for Children’s Rights. “So they are not given an option to meet the same requirements under the federal law, and as a result, they are not paid similar foster care benefits.”
If a parent places a child with a non-licensed relative, the related caregiver automatically becomes eligible for assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF benefits, a program that provides financial assistance to low-income families.
Its eligibility requirements vary from state to state and its monthly payments averaged $249 in 2009. In the meantime, a minimum monthly foster care payment averaged $511, according to a 2011 U. S. Government Accountability Office report.
Research suggests that foster youth living with relatives, especially sibling groups, experience more placement stability and exhibit fewer behavioral challenges.
“A lot of those families don’t have an ability to go through the licensing process,” said Peggy Stewart, an adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. “Due to a burden placed upon a family, sometimes they give up and a child is placed with a non-relative.”
Olga Grigoryants is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.