By Janet Sherwood
Foster parents and relative caregivers generally spend more time with a foster child than any other participant in the child welfare system. Consequently, caregivers are the people who know more about the child’s current needs and well-being than anyone else in the system, including the caseworker, the CASA, the service providers, the child’s attorney and the court.
Because they know the child well, caregivers are often very effective advocates for their foster children. Yet, too often, the system does not value or recognize caregivers as an important resource for direct information about the current physical health, mental health, educational progress, special needs, and overall well-being of the children in their care.
The California Legislature has declared that “foster parents are one of the most important sources of information about the child in their care. Courts, lawyers, and social workers should have the benefit of caregivers’ perceptions. Both federal and state law recognize the importance of foster parents’ participation in juvenile court proceedings. Federal law requires that foster parents and other caregivers receive expanded opportunities for notice, the right to participate in dependency court review and permanency hearings. State law similarly provides that caregivers may submit their concerns to the courts in writing.” (Welfare and Institutions Code section 16010.4(b).)
In furtherance of this legislative policy, state law requires that caregivers be provided with notice and the opportunity to participate in various hearings in dependency cases. It also requires the county child welfare agency to inform caregivers of their right to provide written information about the child to the court and to provide them with the JV-290 Judicial Council form they may use to do so.
Recently, Advokids, a foster child advocacy organization that I helped found, and three individual foster parents filed a suit against the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services alleging that it routinely fails to give caregivers required notices of hearings, fails to tell them what the hearing will be about or how they can participate in the hearing, and fails to give caregivers the seven-day notice required by law when it decides to move a foster child. Advokids is a plaintiff in this suit because we believe that outcomes for children in foster care are better when caregivers participate in the process and the juvenile court has more, rather than less, information about the child before it decides what is in that child’s best interests.
Caregivers have critical knowledge about the child that no one else has.
Even if the Legislature did not require it, the child welfare system should be welcoming input from caregivers instead of turning them away at the courthouse door. The child welfare system must stop treating caregivers as if they were nothing more than glorified (and poorly paid) babysitters. They must be recognized and treated as part of the “team” working to protect the child and heal the child’s family. When a caregiver expresses a concern that the child’s needs are not being met, we should be listening carefully instead of dismissing the caregiver as a “meddler” who has no business expressing an opinion as to what may or may not be in that child’s best interests.
Janet Sherwood is the Deputy Director of Advokids, an attorney, an NACC certified Child Welfare Specialist, and a State Bar certified appellate specialist with over 30 years of experience in child welfare.