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Pending federal legislation would benefit foster children, save millions

10/8/2008

Sharita Forrest, News Editor
217-244-1072; slforres@illinois.edu

Testa
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Key portions of the legislation are based upon studies by Mark F. Testa, the director of the Children and Family Research Center, a professor in the School of Social Work at Illinois, and the architect of the largest federal demonstration about subsidized guardianship.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Illinois and other states could save tens of millions of dollars in administrative costs and find safe, permanent homes for thousands more foster children each year if pending federal legislation is signed by President George W. Bush.

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, approved by Congress and awaiting Bush’s signature, has been characterized by some as the most significant reform of the foster-care system in a decade. Key provisions of the act, crafted by Illinois U.S. Reps. Danny Davis, Timothy Johnson, and Jerry Weller, would make federal support available for the first time to foster parents who choose to become the legal guardians of kin in their care.

Of the half million children living in foster care in the U.S., about one-fourth of them are being cared for by relatives, who previously could not receive financial assistance unless the children remained in the foster-care system or were adopted.

Key portions of the legislation are based upon studies by Mark F. Testa, the director of the Children and Family Research Center, a professor in the School of Social Work at Illinois, and the architect of the largest federal demonstration about subsidized guardianship. Testa led a 10-year study in Illinois, later replicated in Tennessee and Wisconsin, which examined the effects of relative guardianship on the length of time children and youth spent in the foster-care system, adoption rates and children’s well-being. In the study, foster families in the intervention groups were offered the option of assuming permanent legal guardianship of relative children in their care and receiving subsidies equivalent to the amounts they would have received as licensed foster or adoptive parents.

By the end of the observation period in 2007, 25.7 percent of the children in Illinois, 17.8 percent of the children in Wisconsin, and 26.6 percent of the children in Tennessee who were in the intervention groups were discharged to permanent guardianship.

“Overall, there was a huge increase in the number of children who were adopted or taken into guardianship during our study,” Testa said. “Nationally, more than 20,000 children in the foster-care system each year could find safe, permanent homes if federal funds were available to support their caregivers’ becoming their legal guardians.”

In Illinois, children spent an average of 209 fewer days in foster care, in part because guardianships could be finalized more quickly than adoptions since parental rights need not be terminated. Some relatives chose guardianship over adoption, particularly with older children who preferred not to sever their parents’ rights and permanently exclude them from their lives.

With guardianship, relative caregivers who preferred to retain their extended family identities as grandparents, aunts and uncles were able to do so, and children were spared routine court appearances, quarterly case reviews and monthly visits by caseworkers and retained rights of sibling visitation. Birth parents could still exercise limited roles in their children’s upbringing and petition the court to regain custody if circumstances changed.

The savings to the state of Illinois in the form of reduced costs for administrative and judicial oversight were substantial: $2,294 per child, or about $90 million if multiplied by the 40,000 children in the intervention group.

Another important provision of the act is that it offers states the option of extending foster care until youth reach age 21. “As parents of young adults know, the transition to young adulthood now lasts well beyond age 18 into the middle and late twenties,” Testa said.

“Our old system of saying ‘So long!’ to foster children at age 18 was resulting in record numbers of youth who were homeless, who ended up being victimized and were really unprepared to take care of themselves. Moving it up to age 21 will give foster youth greater opportunity to finish school, begin college, settle down and find a job that can support them and help them with the medical needs that they had trouble with once they left foster care.”