After years of debate, New York’s state child welfare agency has approved regulations authorizing families in times of crisis or acute difficulty to place their children with “host family homes” — a network of pre-vetted volunteers who will be recruited to help outside of the formal foster care system.
Supporters have called for the state to allow these arrangements, which they say provide temporary respite to parents facing unemployment, homelessness, drug or alcohol dependence, incarceration or financial crises.
Opponents are equally resolute. The home-hosting model was the topic of an in-depth report in The Imprint last year revealing a bevy of critics — from the president of the American Bar Association to New York’s top family court judges and the Children’s Defense Fund.
One comment submitted to the state as it considered new rules allowing “host family homes” called them “a hydra-headed quasi-foster care monster, with all of the hallmarks of foster care but none of the legal protections the law demands.”
The New York Office of Children and Family Services released its proposed regulations for public comment in early 2020. After a round of revisions, the agency announced last month what it titled a “Bold, New Initiative,” supporting at-risk families “without fear of unnecessary child welfare involvement.”
The “host home” model allows state-approved organizations to match parents with other families who have received background checks and training to temporarily care for other people’s children. The arrangements can last for up to six months, with the option for six-month extensions, and are made outside of family court oversight.
“Host Family Homes support families who need temporary help caring for children during a surgery, illness or death in the family or other temporary family crisis,” Children and Family Services Commissioner Sheila Poole wrote in a Dec. 13 statement emailed to The Imprint and posted on her agency’s website. “The model is based upon the fundamental truth that there are wonderful families in communities throughout our state willing to support their neighbors who do not have friends or relatives who can safely care for their children in an emergency.”
There are no approved host home organizations yet, but Poole’s agency expects to launch the program early in the spring, according to a spokesperson.
The national, faith-based nonprofit Safe Families For Children first championed the model, recruiting families from churches to provide overnight respite for the children of struggling and isolated parents. Since the organization launched in Illinois in 2003, it states that its local chapters have organized roughly 50,000 “hostings” nationwide. The group says the informal arrangements typically last less than a month, and involve children age 6 or younger — at no cost to parents in need.
Safe Families for Children first began recruiting volunteers in Brooklyn in 2015, and has advocated for the state’s permission to start organizing hostings in the city ever since.
On its website, Safe Families depicts the need for its program with a narrated video focusing on a single mother of two who describes contending with bipolar disorder, severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder after having lost a baby in a car accident.
“When I got in touch with my therapist, I told her I wanted to commit suicide,” said the mother, who was also facing a child welfare investigation that could have resulted in losing her children to foster care.
The therapist referred her to Safe Families, and a woman identified as Danielle took in the overwhelmed mother’s children for a few months.
“It’s just hard to even imagine that when you’re in trouble and you look at your phone and you actually have nobody to call — there are a ton of people that are in that situation,” Safe Families founder David Anderson states in the video.
Anderson’s organization has received positive coverage from national and evangelical media over the years, and met only occasional resistance when it launched in dozens of other states. Anderson has long spoken publicly of his motivation, saying the Lord gave him the hosting idea.
“How do you build this as a social movement versus just a program?” Anderson told The Imprint in a 2020 interview. “It’s built on the idea of trying to make the safety and protection of our children all of our responsibility, not just the child welfare system.”
In its reporting, The Imprint found that the “host home” approach now being authorized by New York is opposed by professionals with decades of expertise in the child welfare field. Dozens of advocates and attorneys for children, parents, relative caregivers and domestic violence survivors opposed the New York rule change allowing home-hosting, raising concerns about at-risk families being diverted from other supportive services that don’t require family separations.
In public comments sent to state officials last August, one bipartisan group of legal scholars argued that the child welfare system has a “long and unfortunate history” of offering services that are “voluntary” in name only, and raised the prospect of child welfare investigators pressuring families into host home arrangements as an alternative to taxpayer-funded, court-monitored foster care.
“The idea of a domestic violence survivor being able to parentally designate children to this program for a short while seems beneficial — we support respite for parents,” said Raquel Singh, executive director of the survivors advocacy organization, Voices of Women. “But this policy still seems to be a pathway to adoption, unknowingly.”
Singh called the new policy “problematic, particularly to traumatized populations.”
Children and Family Services leaders have defended the new regulations that could allow Safe Families and similar groups to operate in New York, including at a public webinar hosted by the agency in June 2020.
Lisa Ghartey Ogundimu, deputy commissioner at Children and Family Services, responded to advocates’ concerns that low-income parents are powerless when presented with better-resourced families volunteering to take children in free of charge. She described the state’s aim as seeking alternatives to foster care, rather than creating a “shadow foster care system.”
On its website, Safe Families underscores this notion, highlighting that children in its care are reunified with family 95% of the time, far higher than the reunification rate from foster care. The New York City chapter is still waiting to become an approved “Host Family Home Agency,” but director Laura Galt said in an email that her group has received over 100 requests for hostings since the pandemic began.
“Most of these requests have come from hospitals — for a mom to give birth or for a parent to have surgery,” Galt wrote in an email, adding there is “huge need” for short-term emergency care in the city.
The final state regulations adopted last month attempt to address concerns that advocates and court officials have raised over the past two years. They include requirements that children in host homes have “the right to enjoy freedom of thought, conscience, cultural and ethnic practice, and religion.” Participating children are entitled to “adequate and appropriate food, clothing, and housing,” and “an unrestricted right” to use phones and email. Host homes are also barred from using corporal punishment or depriving children of vists with their family.
What’s more, although the final regulations bar parents who are the subject of an open investigation into suspected child abuse or neglect, there are new requirements that parents be informed of their rights and provided with information about free or low-cost legal and other supportive services.
The latest version of the regulations also reduces use of the word “placement” to describe the temporary shifting of children’s residency to host homes.
In her 2020 written comment to state officials, Galt described that and other phrases as too closely aligned with the foster care system. “Would be better to distance from that,” Galt wrote. She also requested that language be inserted specifying that hosting could not be used as an “ultimatum or coercion for a parent that is under investigation” from child welfare authorities.
Still, to opponents, host family homes embody foster care simply by another name — without the independent checks and balances that the nation’s juvenile courts and appointed lawyers have provided for more than a century.
In an August letter to Commissioner Poole, Anne-Marie Jolly, who is now New York City’s top administrative judge for the family courts, disputed the characterization of home hosting as a foster care prevention method, stating that “it is not in any way preventing out-of-home care.”
Instead, she called the arrangement “a form of out-of-home care but without any of the protections afforded in foster care cases.”