Ensuring High-Quality Kinship Care for Children in Wisconsin
While it is generally preferable to place children in foster care with relatives, it is vital that child welfare officials ensure the safety and well-being of these children so the trauma of being removed from their homes isn’t compounded further by abuse or neglect.
The state of Wisconsin recently launched a new effort to license and train relatives following a legislative change in 2009 requiring relatives caring for foster youth to apply for a foster home license. Ensuring High-Quality Kinship Care for Children in Wisconsin (PDF), released in March 2011 by Children’s Rights, evaluates the implementation of this new policy shift in Wisconsin, and offers specific recommendations that would help ensure that foster youth living with relatives are just as safe as those living with unrelated foster parents.
The report finds that while Wisconsin has taken important steps to improve the safety of foster youth living with relatives — and to bolster support for the family members willing to step up and care for them — the state must improve its data tracking system and other licensing policies and practices to ensure that the changes it has made are actually improving the lives of the children and families it serves.
The change in policy and state law was catalyzed in part by the 2009 death of 13-month-old Christopher Thomas in the home of an unlicensed relative — a notorious case that raised serious concerns that children placed in unlicensed foster homes with relatives were not receiving the same protections, support, and services as children in the care of licensed foster parents.
According to the report, DCF has started implementing this new relative licensing requirement, and taken steps to better safeguard children and support relatives. Thanks to these changes, foster children placed with licensed relatives in Wisconsin are more likely be protected; more likely to see their caseworkers regularly; and more likely to get the medical, mental health, and educational services they need.
However, the report notes a number of areas where the new system could be improved.
- If a relative refuses to be licensed, require a determination from the family court that the child in foster care can continue to safely live with that relative.
- Increase all payments to foster parents and licensed relatives to align with the actual costs of raising children.
- Require comprehensive training for all relative caregivers and develop and implement new training for caseworkers specifically focused on relatives caring for foster children.
- Take steps to further ensure that child welfare staff is accurately entering data in a timely manner.
- Enhance the state child welfare data system to ensure all information about relative caregivers is readily available and use that information to evaluate the implementation and performance of the new “levels of care” licensing system.
- Comprehensively review any and all disparities in practices between kinship and non-kinship foster care.
Children’s Rights conducted this study in partnership with the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, and with the collaboration of the state Department of Children and Families.
Children’s Rights and the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families (WCCF) gratefully acknowledge a grant from an anonymous fund at the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, which generously supported our work on this project.