Kinship Care Subcommittee
Over the past fifteen years, an increase in child removals, coupled with a decrease in the number of available foster homes and a growing appreciation for relatives as caregivers, resulted in a significant increase in the number of children being cared for by kin. In addition, federal policy has shifted from an emphasis on non-relative foster care providers to a preference for relative placements. In Ohio, as in many states, law and policy have not kept pace with the huge increase in the number of children being raised by kinship caregivers.
In order to address legal and policy issues identified as creating barriers to kinship families and the systems that serve them, the Supreme Court of Ohio Advisory Committee on Children, Families and the Courts’ Subcommittee on Responding to Child Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency amended its original charge to include a new focus on kinship care. The charge reads:
In certain circumstances it is in the best interest of a child to temporarily or permanently live with ad be cared for by a relative or close family friend. Collectively, these caregivers are known as kinship caregivers. Data from the 2000 U.S. census bureau reports that 86,000 Ohio children have their grandparents as their sole caregiver. The census does not track other kinship families.
Laws governing the determination of custody for children have increasingly emphasized the need for long-term, stable living situations. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports:
Research has shown us that children grow up best in nurturing, stable families. These families:
- Offer commitment and continuity…
- Have legal status… to protect their children’s interests and welfare
- Have members that share a common future
Custody determinations for children may be decided by probate, domestic relations, or juvenile courts depending on the specific circumstances of a family. Kinship caregivers find themselves navigating a complex legal system which to varying degrees may or may not support a stable and permanent living situation for children. The legal standards applied by courts with jurisdiction over such matters may result in different outcomes depending on the court in which a pleading is filed.
In order to consistently provide for the best interests of children across court jurisdictions and provide a clear legal structure for kinship care in Ohio, the Subcommittee on Responding to Child Abuse, Neglect, and Dependency is charged with the following tasks:
To make recommendations to reduce or better manage any inconsistencies among court jurisdictions in kinship care situations.
To create a clear and consistent legal path as related to child custody in kinship care situations.
To make recommendations for resources and tools that might be provided to those seeking custody of children in kinship care situations, including pro se litigants.
Pursuant to this charge, the Subcommittee conducted in-depth research into the laws, policies, and practices that govern kinship care relationships in Ohio and in other states. The Subcommittee also developed stakeholder surveys and other strategies to gather input on kinship law and practices in Ohio from judges and magistrates, Public Children Services Agencies (PCSAs), resource organizations, kinship caregivers, and adult youth who were in kinship care. The Subcommittee received over four hundred survey responses, providing a wealth of information on the landscape of kinship care in Ohio. In addition, over thirty interviews were conducted with individuals and focus groups, providing even greater detail on promising practices that support kinship families and on the legal, social, and practice barriers that challenge them.
The Subcommittee focused much of its work on assessing the various legal pathways to kinship care relationships under Ohio law. Its research, augmented by stakeholder input, revealed that these paths do not always provide for consistent outcomes for kin caregivers and the children in their care. In addition, the legal and procedural paths frequently are difficult for kin caregivers to negotiate and legal counsel often is not available or financially accessible. A primary theme the research and data collection identified is the lack of consistency among the laws that govern kinship care relationships in Ohio courts with jurisdiction over these relationships: domestic relations courts, probate courts, and juvenile courts.
To address these inconsistencies, the Subcommittee has developed recommendations focused on amending discrete provisions of the Ohio Revised Code that were identified as creating barriers to consistent practice. Broadly, the recommendations include the following:
Amend the domestic relations code to:
- provide standards and a process for “committing a child to a relative,” including requiring a finding of parental suitability prior to such commitment;
- provide a non-exclusive list of factors that would support a finding that such commitment is in the child’s best interest;
- clarify that the relationship created by such process as that of legal custody;
- provide specific criteria for a finding of parental unsuitability that would support legal custody by a relative; and
- provide specific criteria for a finding of parental unsuitability that would support a domestic relations court’s discretionary certification of a case to the juvenile court.
Amend the probate code to:
- provide a non-exclusive list of factors, consistent with those recommended for the domestic relations code, that would support a finding that the appointment of a guardian for a minor is in the minor’s best interest;
- provide specific criteria for a finding of parental unsuitability that would support the appointment of a guardian of a minor’s person or the certification of a case to the juvenile court; and
- provide guidance on the “good cause” required for the removal of a guardian of a minor.
Amend the juvenile code to:
- provide a non-exclusive list of factors, consistent with those recommended for the domestic relations code and the probate, that would support a best interest finding in relation to an order of legal custody; and
- provide a non-exclusive list of factors that would support a finding that a return to a parent’s custody is in the best interest of the child.
KINSHIP CARE PROJECT RESOURCES
- Final Report to the Advisory Commitee on Children, Families, and the Courts
- Final Report Executive Summary
National Kinship Care Resources
Subsidized Guardianship and Kinship Care, Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative
Child Welfare League of America, Kinship Care Practice Area
Kinship Care, Children's Defense Fund