Washington state will now prioritize keeping children with relatives when both parents lose custody, under a new law signed last month.
Historically, the state has favored adoption when reunification efforts fail, which requires termination of parental rights. In some cases, this has led to children being removed from stable kinship homes when those relatives opt against formal adoption, even if they still want to permanently care for the child.
Under the new law, called the Keeping Families Together Act, child protection authorities will be prohibited from moving a child out of a relative’s home so long as the placement remains safe and stable, and they must explore guardianship with kin or a family friend as a permanency option in lieu of terminating parental rights. It also expands eligibility for guardians to access financial assistance from the state.
“Keeping families together and supporting children by ensuring a more permanent and comfortable housing environment will give them better outcomes and more support in their future,” bill author Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self (D) said in a press release.
A recent state Supreme Court case brought national attention to the issue and highlighted concerning racial implications of the department’s policy. The case focused on a young boy named Keyon, who was removed from the care of his grandmother who had raised him since infancy and shuffled between multiple foster homes, all while his grandmother and an aunt petitioned the state to take the boy in.
The state’s high court reversed child welfare authorities’ decision to remove Keyon from the care of family members and said that “courts must afford meaningful preference to placement with relatives.” Keyon’s mother’s parental rights were ultimately reinstated, and the two were reunited.
The court also addressed concerns of racial biases in some child welfare departments’ assessment of a child’s “best interest.” The ruling stated that “factors that serve as proxies for race,” like immigration status or years-old criminal histories, “cannot be used to deny placement with relatives with whom the child has a relationship and is comfortable.”
The law goes into effect June 9.