But some foster care advocates hope new federal guidelines will make it easier for many foster care parents to get licensed, giving a boost to recruiting efforts, particularly among extended family members.
The new proposed regulations, which the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services collected public comment on for several months this summer and fall, don't include a square-footage requirement or a minimum number of bedrooms — rules that many states have enforced for years. Instead, they talk about "sleeping spaces" that apartment-dwelling foster families might carve out of their living rooms.
The suggested standards also propose that states not require foster parents to own a car, as long as they have access to reliable public transportation. That change would make it easier for city residents to become foster parents.
Many of the suggested rules are more flexible, and will enable more foster families to get licensed while protecting the safety and well-being of children who've already been traumatized, said Ana Beltran, special adviser for Generations United, a Washington-D.C. based advocacy and research group.
"Standards will be more focused on common-sense safety requirements, rather than standards based on some suburban, middle-class ideal of a home, that's not necessarily the best home for a child," said Beltran, whose group suggested some of the changes to HHS.
To be sure, many foster care advocates and state agencies praised some of the new flexibility but also raised concerns in their public comments about some of the proposed rules, including specifics on swimming pool barriers, languages spoken, immunization schedules, transportation options and physical and mental health exams for foster parents.
"The proposed national model includes standards that will create a barrier for many applicants," wrote the California Department of Social Services. "Additionally, due to the critical shortage of available foster homes, we urge HHS to reconsider the requirements ... to encourage, not discourage, those interested in becoming foster parents."
The public comment period ended in October, and states and 12 Native American tribes will have until April to explain how they are aligning their foster care standards to the federal model.
California and South Carolina already have revamped their licensing standards to make it easier for more families to qualify as foster parents. Last year, in a massive overhaul of its child welfare system, California sped up the process for grandparents and other extended family members — so-called kinship caregivers — to become licensed and therefore eligible for the same benefits as non-relative foster parents.
In 2016, South Carolina increased the maximum number of children that can be placed with a foster family from five children, including the foster family's own children, to eight.
Washington state child welfare officials also raised the maximum number of children that can be placed in a foster home in an emergency. Now, the state will allow more than six kids in a two-parent foster home when a relative or siblings need to be placed immediately.
Arizona lawmakers in January introduced a bill to fast-track licensing for kinship caregivers. The bill, still in committee, includes a provision that would allow child welfare officials to "waive any non-safety licensing requirement if compliance with the non-safety requirement would be a hardship on the kinship foster-care parent."
Nationwide, the number of children in foster care is up 10 percent over the past five years, HHS data shows, further straining an already overburdened child welfare system.
Between 2016 and 2017, more than half of the states experienced a decline in the number of available foster homes, and between 2017 and 2018, 15 states saw a decline, according to the online news site Chronicle of Social Change, which focuses on children, youth and families. Thirty-one states placed more children in group homes in 2016 than they did in 2012.
Licensing standards for foster families vary greatly from state to state, dictating, for example, the size of bedrooms and the maximum number of children who can sleep in a room. And often those standards are overly restrictive, Beltran said.
For example, she noted, Arkansas once required that foster families who rent must prove that their landlords don't object to them caring for foster children. Other states require that foster families have cars — even in cities with excellent public transit, where having a car is a financial liability, Beltran said.
"That can be a huge barrier," Beltran said. "We consider that to be socioeconomic bias."
Nearly half of all children in Washington state's foster care system are living with relatives who aren't licensed, said Ross Hunter, secretary of the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families.
Most of the time, Hunter said, their homes don't meet the state licensing standards, which require that every bedroom have outdoor egress and access to a hallway or common area. State rules also prohibit creating makeshift bedrooms in hallways, kitchens, living rooms, dining rooms or unfinished basements.
Without a license, kinship caregivers don't qualify for foster care payments.
"I can place the kid with a stranger and pay the stranger $700 a month," Hunter said. "But I can't give that same payment to the kid's grandmother, who could use that money to remedy the housing problem.
"It's like an ungodly Catch-22," Hunter said.
Irene Clements, executive director of the National Foster Parent Association based in Pflugerville, Texas, said foster families often get into financial trouble when they try to accommodate an additional child by buying a bigger car or a bigger home.
Many foster families expect their homes to be full of foster children all the time, and count on foster care payments to offset the costs, she said. But placements — and the payments that come with them — can be erratic. Extra bedrooms might sit empty for months. (Foster care payments vary greatly from state to state, generally ranging between $300 and $900 a child.)
"In the markets where things are so very expensive, like California, it would be hard for your average person to have a home big enough to accommodate additional children," Clements said.
High housing costs prevent many would-be foster families from taking in kids, according to recent research by the Field Center for Children's Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania.
In California, child welfare workers in expensive cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles often can't find local foster families.
Instead, they sometimes place children in other counties or towns where housing dollars stretch further — but where the kids are separated from their schools, friends and familiar surroundings. Doing so can complicate contact and eventual reunification with their biological parents, officials from Los Angeles County said.
High housing costs are an especially strong disincentive for grandparents and other extended family members who don't qualify for foster care payments because they aren't licensed, said Ioana Marinescu, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-author of the study.
Marinescu said her research suggests that increasing the financial support from states — even by as little as 10 percent — would encourage many more families to take in kids.
"If you want to encourage more kinship placements, increasing foster care payments would be a fruitful avenue," Marinescu said.
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