The Washington state Supreme Court has ended a legal battle with broad implications for children’s rights to a family, a case that centered on a foster care decision for one small boy.
On a December afternoon in 2019, 6-year-old Keyon didn’t go home from school with his uncle, as his grandmother and caregiver since infancy had arranged. Instead, he was taken into foster care. And for three weeks, with the Black child’s relatives fighting in vain to bring him home, Keyon moved through three foster homes, eventually ending up with a white family who wanted to adopt him.
This month, the basis for those moves by Washington’s Department of Children, Youth and Families — that they were in Keyon’s “best interest” — was reversed by the state’s highest court.
The child welfare agency’s decisions had been approved by a trial court judge and may well have been run-of-the-mill twists for a foster care case. But for a young school child, they were laden with lifelong impact. Keyon was shuffled through a succession of strangers’ homes, had his signature braids cut off and spent a Christmas apart from his many relatives.
“Disrupting a child’s placement, as happened in this case, for reasons that appear to have virtually no grounds at all, creates chaos for the child,” states the firmly worded Feb. 19 Supreme Court opinion In re the Dependency of K.W. “Courts must afford meaningful preference to placement with relatives.”
‘It was so sad’
That 2019 December day started normally for Keyon. He had lived since he was a baby with his grandmother Cheryl Beaver after the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families removed him from his mother’s care. Like most weekdays, Beaver, an early childhood educator, saw him off to school at the bus stop.
One day she headed on a day trip to her niece’s graduation. She had arranged for her adult son to pick Keyon up, and to watch him until she returned. But because Beaver had not told Keyon’s caseworker she was going out of town, the department took custody of the child.
“Everything has always been about family,” Beaver told The Imprint last spring. “It was so sad for all of us.”
While Keyon was in foster care, he kept asking to be reunited with his grandma, court records show, or his great aunt Barbara Hobson. But neither Beaver nor Hobson was able to convince the court to place the boy back with his family. Instead, the relatives ended up mired in home studies that went nowhere, and they were told their distant pasts disqualified them to be good caretakers of Keyon.
In a strange twist in the case, all the while, Keyon’s mother, Salina Simpson, had been successfully conquering the struggles that had originally caused her to lose her baby boy. By August 2020, Simpson earned her high school diploma, went through a training program for parents in dependency court and — most critically — maintained her sobriety from drugs for two years. She then successfully petitioned the court for a reversal of the termination of her parental rights. In a highly unusual move, the reversal was granted, and Keyon returned to live with his mother, rejoining his kin.
Although Keyon’s case is long over, the impact of his family’s ordeal will likely ripple through the family courts of Washington state and beyond. The Washington Supreme Court took up the case last year, which it can choose to do if it involves an issue that is of “continuing and substantial public interest.”
And on Feb. 17, the justices reversed the trial court’s decision to place Keyon outside his relatives’ care — ruling in favor of Keyon and his family, who were backed by the ACLU and NAACP due to the racial aspects of the case.
The state’s highest court ruling this month underscores the importance of placements with relatives, but also notes the racial bias present in some of the child welfare agencies’ policies.
The Supreme Court noted the “empirically demonstrated value and importance” of family relations, saying that in the decision-making process over how to handle children’s placements, “meaningful preference” must be given to relatives. It also noted “the danger of improper biases about ‘best interests’ contaminating the decision-making process.”
This month, legal advocates for children and parents celebrated the ruling in Keyon’s case.
“I am hopeful the Supreme Court’s decision makes clear that there is presumption of relative care written into our law and that presumption must be applied in a meaningful way,” said S. Annie Chung, a staff attorney at Legal Counsel for Youth and Children who filed an amicus brief in the case. “What this family and this child went through was not out of the norm, the upheaval that child experienced is the status quo.”
The treatment of relatives
The court looked at two central issues in Keyon’s case, brought on behalf of the child. The first was whether the legal standard of giving preference to relatives remains in effect, even after a child is considered “legally free” for adoption — meaning the rights to their parents’ custody have been terminated by the courts.
The department argued that because Keyon’s ties to his mother had been severed, finding him a permanent home became the highest priority, and that the law that requires a preference for placing children with relatives was no longer relevant. The Washington Supreme Court disagreed, ruling that children’s relatives have the right to receive preferential treatment for placement, even when the rights of the child’s parents have been terminated.
The second issue the court addressed was the potential for racial bias in what is a child’s “best interest” — the prevailing standard for decision-making in foster care cases. Although courts are tasked with taking all the evidence at hand in deciding what’s in a child’s best interest, there is no uniform legal standard that applies, leaving plenty room for interpretation.
Ali Hohman, director of legal services at the Washington Defenders Association which supports public defenders in the state, said that ambiguity was problematic in Keyon’s case.
“We’re concerned that we have the family being taken apart under the guise of ‘best interests,’ and that the standard is kind of amorphous, it’s kind of nebulous,” Hohman said. “It’s hard to really discern what it means to be the ‘best interest of the child.’”
The amicus brief in support of Keyon’s relatives, filed by Washington Defenders Association and several legal nonprofits, argues that racial bias can affect those decisions.
“Improper invocation of the ‘best interests’ standard often gives cover to both agency decision makers and reviewing courts in the unwarranted removal of Black children from their family members and hastens the destruction of Black families,” the brief states.
The court agreed with this interpretation, ruling that “factors that serve as proxies for race” — such as dated domestic violence or criminal history, or immigration status — “cannot be used to deny placement with relatives with whom the child has a relationship and is comfortable.”
Kevin Campbell, the founder of a nationally deployed model known as Family Finding that connects children who are being removed from their parents more quickly with relatives, said the trial court’s early decision in the case — however troubling for Keyon and his family — was not surprising. Similar situations, leaving relatives on the outs in favor of adoptive homes, are not uncommon in foster care systems nationwide.
“The agency thought they had adoptive parents for this child; for them, adoption is the gold standard for ‘permanency,’” Campbell said. “Family integrity, especially for Black and Indian families, is an administrative barrier to be overcome by any means possible, not a measure of justice to protect.”
In Keyon’s case, Campbell added, the Supreme Court decision conveys a straightforward test: “Are relatives being treated as though they have a legal preference for placement, or as an inconvenience to the state or one of their partners in breaking up extended families in the interest of operating their business of foster care and adoption?”