In Response to Safe Families

OCFS recently released a proposed policy change to allow for a group called Safe Families to operate in NY. They posted the potential regulations in the NYS Register on January 29th, asking for feedback. You can find the policy HERE.

Safe Families wishes to start finding what they call “Host Homes” for children. According to their website, their mission is to provide homes for children so that the child welfare system does not have to step in. Essentially, a parent can voluntarily place their child in the home of a stranger who has been vetted by this agency, without the involvement of a child welfare agency. You can read more about them on their website, HERE.

While we believe the goal of helping children and families in crisis is a noble cause, we also believe that kin are the best way to support children when they need a place to go outside of their parents’ homes. We believe that sending children into homes of strangers causes more harm than good, and that lack of oversight of these placements could lead to problems for children and families alike.

The NYS Kinship Navigator recently sent out comments to the child welfare community in response to the policy proposal. Below are the Navigator’s comments:

“The NYS Kinship Navigator has been working on behalf of the kinship community since 2006 and has a history of working to ensure children are safe and find permanency with kin, no matter what the custodial arrangement. Ryan Johnson has been following discussions for us on Safe Families and now we would like to add our voice. We are considering a public comment that would submit the below (and more). We will be circulating the below to our KinCare Coalition for signatures, and we are looking for suggestions as to what the best tactic would be to create the strongest voice in opposition to Safe Families. 

As founding Director of the Navigator and as a kinship advocate since 1997, my opinion is that this proposed regulation is a giant step backward and an alarming development. I am joined in this opinion by the current co-director Rae Glaser and by Ryan Johnson. It sets up a substitute foster care system that will help OCFS avoid AFCARS review. That is not a legitimate purpose. It is an illegal usurpation of family rights; we cannot see how any parent, child, family, or kinship proponent could back this. There are so many problems, much of which we are sure you all are already aware of.   

As advocates for kinship care and a long time complainers about the wrongs associated with Alternative Living Arrangements (aka “safety plans”), we find this scheme unnerving. It institutionalizes such safety plans, which are already an unregulated and ill-managed disaster for parents, kin, and children. It also bastardizes the use of the General Obligation Law parental designation, which was never intended to enable out of home care with non-kin as an alternative to kinship care.   

I was around during the passage of NYS’s parental designation law. The effort started in the late nineties, when there was a movement to “empower” families to arrange care by enactment of parental powers of attorney. After a few years of advocacy, and two vetoes by Governor Pataki, a compromise bill was signed.  AARP, along with other advocates including myself, were part of the process. No one saw this as a way to place children with strangers.  It was to empower families to care for children via informal custody, without going to court.  

Here are some issues we see with the proposed Safe Families regulations and practice. 

  1. The Agreement is Unlawful: The Safe Families “agreement” is misleading, maybe illegal. Among other wrongs, it declares that parents may “request” the return of their children and may have to wait 48 hours for the return of their child. There is no custodial right for Hosts to keep children, not for one second after the parents choose orally or in writing to revoke the agreement. In addition, the agreement states that if a Host family is not able to continue care for a child, the host agency will find another place for the child to reside. The agency has no such right to place without a written designation signed by the parent. And under all circumstances, for designation beyond thirty days, the writing must be notarized, unlike the current proposed agreement that contains no provision for notarization. Finally, the visitation provisions are plainly unlawful. 
  2. Kin and Family are Displaced. The practice also undermines kin as a resource. Contrary to all child welfare practices for the past thirty years which prefer kin for placements, based on the fact that when kids can’t live with parents, they do best with family members or people they know. Safe Families is just another way that kids end up with strangers – which is NOT what is best for kids. OCFS would do better to address the problems with its current “dumping” of children with relatives without supports – at least then it would be working at keeping families together, instead of this new orphan train scheme.  It can also improve family finding to work strenuously and go the extra mile.  
  3. Parents are Replaced: Leadership at Safe Families has indicated it only is intended to be a resource to families when they have no other outlet to turn to. While this sounds admirable, parents who don’t have any community, family, or other supports to help them are also the most vulnerable. Safe Families is proposing to isolate these individuals and create situations in which these parents have no one on their side if the Host Family or Host Agency decide that the parents are unfit or want to file complaints with CPS against the parents. Targeting this vulnerable population with supportive services to help keep children in homes is the job of Prevention Services, which ought not to be abandoned.   
  4. Oversight of the Host Agency is Lacking: In investigations and removal proceedings, children get assigned an Attorney for the Child – someone whose job it is to ensure the child’s best interests are being considered. In these informal arrangements, children have no voice, and parents who are struggling with addiction or homelessness or any other number of issues are sending children off to homes of strangers with no one assigned to ensure that is actually what is best for the child. Child Welfare gets to continue to tout that foster care numbers are decreasing while encouraging counties to divert children away from supportive services to a sole-source private entity that is self-governing and just hopes that kids will be safe. Formalizing Safe Families in NYS would give the green light to counties to threaten removal of children and send families to this agency who will take their children instead. Hidden Foster Care is hard enough on children and families when kids are being dumped on relatives, it should not be formalized into a system that encourages kids to be dumped into the homes of strangers. 

We are adamantly opposed to any policy bringing Safe Families to New York. Most of the comments we’ve seen indicate what we fear: parents, children and kin rights are trampled, another hidden foster care system is created, families will find themselves hot-lined when they try to get their children back, no data gets collected or reported, there is no accountability to the state agency, and the program remains separate from state agency oversight. We are ready to join any effort to defeat it.”

The NYS Kinship Navigator
Gerard Wallace, Esq. Co-Director, NYS Kinship Navigator
Rae Glaser, Co-Director, NYS Kinship Navigator
Ryan Johnson, MSW, Associate Director, NYS Kinship Navigator

If you are interested in learning more, or would like to lend your voice to the discussion, reach out to us at kincarecoalition@gmail.com and we can circulate a memo for signatures.

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