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2010 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 16, No. 1
December 2010

Reaching Out to Relatives When Children Enter Foster Care

Adapted from Clunk, K. M. & Epstein, H. R. (2010, October). Notifying relatives in child welfare cases: Tips for attorneys. Child Law Practice, 29(8), 113-123.

As we’ve said, when grandparents and other kin step forward to care for children in foster care, the outcomes can be impressive. Yet even if children aren’t placed with them, relatives can still contribute to the safety, permanence, and well-being of children in many ways, including:

  • Attending child and family team meetings (CFTs)
  • Visiting children in care
  • Sharing information (e.g., health)
  • Maintaining cultural connections and family relationships

Though these potential benefits are reason enough to identify and reach out to relatives, child welfare agencies have another: the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008.

Among this federal law’s many provisions are several that direct child welfare agencies to notify relatives when children enter foster care. Though North Carolina law and policy fully reflect these requirements, change in practice and policy at the county, unit, and worker level can take time.

This article offers practical suggestions for meeting policy and legal standards for (1) searching for and (2) giving adequate notice to extended family when children enter foster care in North Carolina.

Searching Diligently
The extent to which agencies search diligently for relatives will be assessed as part of NC’s next federal Child and Family Services Review; failure in this area could negatively impact our state’s performance on the CFSR or result in the loss of at least a portion of our state’s Title IV-E payments. To ensure you meet Fostering Connections’ “due diligence” requirement:

Get started early. Start identifying and notifying potential relative caregivers as soon as the child enters your agency’s custody. This may mean conducting interviews on the day of removal and exploring potential relative caregivers prior to removal.

Ask the parents to identify other relatives for the agency to contact. In North Carolina, child welfare agencies must contact all adult relatives and kin suggested by parents, as well as adult maternal and paternal: grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, great grandparents, nieces, and nephews.

Cast a wide net. Interview household members, friends, family members, and other knowledgeable people (e.g., teachers, health professionals, child care providers, clergy) to develop a list of possible adult relative caregivers.

Use the FPLS. Fostering Connections authorizes child welfare agencies to use the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS), a database that collects and updates information to enforce child support obligation. Using the FPLS you can obtain the absent parent’s social security number, information on the parent’s employment income and benefits, and information about assets or debts owed. Fostering Connections intends child welfare agencies to use this information to find and potentially place the child directly with the absent biological parent or, alternatively, to contact the absent parent to help identify relatives.

Develop checklists to ensure consistency. To ensure everyone in your agency asks similar questions and conducts a sufficient relative search for each child, develop a checklist of questions to ask during interviews and a standard list of people to interview. See below for sample questions.

Sample Questions

Here are some questions for conducting a comprehensive interview regarding the child’s background. (This is not an exhaustive list.)

  1. Who does the child live with? What is the relationship of the child to these household members?
  2. How long have these household members lived with the child?
  3. Do you know any other relatives of the child on both the mother and father’s side? What is their contact information?
  4. Does the child have any siblings, half-siblings, or step-siblings? What is their contact information?
  5. Does the child’s family have any close friends? Do you know their contact information?
  6. How would you describe the child’s relationship with these relatives and close family friends?
  7. Does the child have any health issues? Are there any we should be immediately aware of, such as asthma or anemia?

Source: Clunk & Epstein, 2010

Document your efforts to identify and notify relatives. It is a good idea to create a checklist of ways to identify maternal and paternal relatives. Leave enough space on the checklist to take notes on your efforts. Keep the checklists and notes in the child’s file. Documenting your efforts in this way may help prevent delays in achieving permanency for the child if a relative arrives late in the case, claiming not to have known the child was in care and wanting to be part of the child’s life.

Giving Adequate Notice
The US Children’s Bureau urges agencies to notify relatives in writing when children enter foster care. This gives relatives a chance to review and digest the information and ask questions. Consider using or adapting this sample letter for this purpose. Other best practices related to giving adequate notice include:

Ensure relatives understand the notice. It may be necessary to provide both English and Spanish (or other language) versions of the written notice, accommodate a relative with a disability, or make other reasonable accommodations for the relatives (e.g., provide an interpreter to explain the notice and answer any questions).

Document notification efforts in writing. In the checklist recommended above, include items and space to document notification as well as identification efforts.

Include all required information in the notice. For a list of all required information, consult North Carolina’s children’s services policy manual: http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-10/chg/CSs1201c4.pdf.

Give notice within 30 days to all adult maternal and paternal grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, great grandparents, nieces, and nephews.

Keep in touch. Although it is not required by law, it is a good idea to keep relatives informed and engaged throughout the case. Doing so can really benefit the child, especially if a change of placement is ever needed.

Conclusion
By following the law and identifying and notifying adult relatives when children enter foster care, child welfare professionals further the child’s best interest by inviting relatives to play an important role in the child’s placement and life.