In 2013, a volunteer for an upstate New York legal aid office met with a couple planning to take in two girls — the daughters of the wife’s sister, who was struggling with drug addiction. The younger daughter, an infant, had been born with severe health issues. Yet no one from family court or the local social services office had informed the couple they were eligible for government assistance for bringing the children into their home.
“This is a family that was trying to do the right thing, and were not flooded with resources on their own,” said the volunteer, Richard Heyl de Ortiz, then the executive director of Ulster County’s Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children. “Taking in two children unexpectedly is not something that people have much of a cushion for.”
Now, a new bill will require New York social services workers to provide specific information about grants and kinship programs when they engage with relatives to care for an allegedly abused or neglected child. The bill — passed by the Senate in late February and signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) late last month* — updates the social services code, which only required district offices to tell relatives caring for foster children about a single grant available to them.
“We introduced it because we became aware through the KinCare Network that many families were being contacted to provide care for relative children and were not being provided with support services or information,” said Staten Island State Senator Diane Savino, who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, in a statement emailed by a spokesperson. The bill also passed the Assembly unanimously, with Ellen Jaffee sponsoring.
Advocates say the new law is a win for the relatives, called kinship caregivers, and for proponents of a “family first” approach to foster care, which holds that children in the system should be placed with family members over foster parents they don’t know.
“This bill is a reiteration of what’s already in statutory law. But it fine-tunes how counties do it, and makes sure they do it with all the caregivers they come in contact with,” said Gerard Wallace, the founder and senior director of the New York State Kinship Navigator, which leads a network of kin support groups and has advocated for the new law for years.
“Given the fact there is some bipartisan deference to Senator Savino, because of her child welfare background and deep knowledge, we were really happy when she decided to support it,” Wallace said.
Savino co-sponsored another foster care bill, which, along with several other pieces of child services legislation, cleared the New York legislature in June and await Cuomo’s signature.
Before the new kinship law, kinship caregivers were supposed to be informed about the child-only grant, a cash stipend available to people raising a child who is not their own. But the grant is only $400 a month, and decreases with each additional child a family takes in.
The new bill requires workers to also make sure kin are aware they can become licensed as foster homes, which requires more training and interaction with agencies, but offers more financial assistance. Foster care stipends in upstate New York can be as much as $800 for children older than 12 years old, and more than double that for children with learning disabilities, according to data from New York’s Office of Children and Family Services. Kinship caregivers can also be eligible for specialized training or emergency babysitting.
There are a few reasons that kinship caregivers have not always been informed about the support they are eligible for, experts say. Some social services staff may simply not know what grants and programs are available. Others may feel that families should be able to take care of their own, on their own, according to Bill Gettman, the chief executive of Northern Rivers Family of Services, an Albany-based social services provider.
“There will be a little more training that may be required, a little more awareness that workers will have to apply” because of the new bill, Gettman said, “but overall it’s a benefit.”
The kinship bill lacks specifics about which programs and benefits kinship caregivers should be informed of, other than being told about their eligibility for becoming foster parents. Heyl de Ortiz, who recently stepped down as executive director of Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition of New York, said he would have liked the bill to have a provision that requires social services offices to check in with caregivers a period of time after they take custody of the child. That would benefit caregivers who may have declined benefits under the common assumption that their relative would be able to take the child back after just a few months, he said.
Yet the bill, Gettman said, is a message to providers, lawyers and judges “to keep kinship on the tip of their tongue, and provide that support.”
*Update, Tuesday, November 5th: This sentence has been revised to specify the timing of the legislation’s passage.