Oct. 10, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 3

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    A better life for foster children

    State implements changes based on Testa's research Foster children in Illinois will have more opportunities to be cared for by family members under a new state program based on the research of Mark Testa, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration and Research Director for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.

    The federal government approved a waiver last month that will -- for the first time -- allow the state to use both federal and state funds to subsidize families who become private guardians of foster children who are their relatives. The program will also be used to help stabilize children in long-term foster care with other families.

    The waiver will allow guardianship of foster children to be transferred from the state to extended family members, lowering the state's administrative costs and increasing stability for the children.

    Since the mid-1980s, when the state made it easier for relatives of children in state care to qualify for foster-care benefits, the number of foster children who are cared for by extended family members has skyrocketed. But while this has meant that more children are being cared for in familiar and safe surroundings, it created a financial incentive for families to stay in the foster-care system. Once the relative assumed private guardianship, the family lost the state's foster-care subsidy of about $300 or more per month.

    With the new federal waiver, some portion of the subsidy to the family will continue after the state relinquishes custody of the child. DCFS estimates that between 3,000 and 4,000 children who are now wards of the state are likely to benefit from the program. Selections for the program will begin in January.

    "In addition to being beneficial for the children, subsidized guardianship has long been recognized by child welfare professionals as a sensible and cost-efficient alternative to long-term foster care for children who are unlikely to be adopted because of age, family considerations or relative preferences," Testa said.

    Testa's research, supported by the work of SSA students, has shown the benefits of keeping children in the homes of relatives.

    One of the main benefits is that although it was expected that children staying with relatives would be returned more quickly to their parents, the return rate to parents actually has been lower for children in formal kinship care, compared with the return rate of foster children in the care of nonrelatives. This means that the system is less likely to risk returning a child to a previously abusive or neglectful parent if the child is being safely cared for by a relative.

    Testa also found that families caring for children for more than a year were prepared to care for them for a long time. "In response to a question asked of all caregivers, the relatives of 83 percent of the children said that the best plan for the children in their care was to remain with them until they were 'all grown,' " Testa reported. "This kind of stability is unusual in traditional foster care."

    And while it was expected that few relatives would be interested in formal adoption, 70 percent of caregivers who thought the best plan for the child was to stay with them said they would consider adopting. Many, however, had misgivings about adopting, either because they thought the child was too old, they felt some apprehension about severing the parents' legal ties to the child, or they were concerned about financial pressures.

    The subsidized guardianship program could help solve some of those difficulties and help provide a permanent home for children, Testa said.

    Testa's work with DCFS includes conducting policy studies on such special topics as using relatives as foster parents, improving agency practice and making recommendations on the funding of DCFS research and planning projects. He works closely with DCFS director Jess McDonald (A.M.'73) and other senior administrators within the agency.

    -- Catherine Behan