By Teresa Wiltz


Amid an opioid crisis that has increased the need for foster care, states are struggling to find enough foster families to take in kids. A shortage of affordable housing in many places is making the problem even worse.

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.

Daniel Bell, who spent years in the foster care system, came to the legislature to support several new bills to make the lives of foster kids better.
Daniel Bell, who spent years in the foster care system, came to the North Carolina legislature in 2015 to support several new bills to make the lives of foster kids better. The state has adopted some rules similar to those that national agencies are now promoting. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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.”

More Children, Fewer Homes

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.”

shows people at a table, one woman is talking
Sen. Tamara Barringer (R-Cary) makes a comment during a meeting in March of the Social Services Working Group. The group is poring through ways to upgrade North Carolina’s social services system. To her right is Rep. Sarah Stevens (R-Mt. Airy), the two co-chair the multidisciplinary group. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

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.

Housing Affordability

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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Stateline is an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts, providing daily, original reporting and analysis on trends in state policy. Used with permission.

2 replies on “New Rules Could Open More Homes to Foster Kids”

  1. The lower number of foster homes could also be because those already licensed are refusing to continue to foster because the state employees treat them horribly. I am speaking from 10 yrs experience. That’s why I closed my home.

  2. FROM the report: ““If you want to encourage more kinship placements, increasing foster care payments would be a fruitful avenue,” Marinescu said.”

    This makes no sense at all. The reality is that willing kin is DENIED placement by CPS because CPS doesn’t get federal funds when they place children with kin, EVEN THOUGH the NC Juvenile code REQUIRES that they place a child with a willing relative whose parent is unable to care for them or needs temporary assistance. In too many circumstances, the relative is capable and willing, but CPS has another agenda.
    The reality is that to get around this legal requirement that helps keep families together, a county CPS agency makes false allegations or otherwise finds something “wrong ” with the willing relative that doesn’t really exist or is irrelevant or even in conflict with the stated goals and mission of the State Department of Health, for example to respect the culture and opinions of family members.

    Even though CPS agents commit slander and libel in these circumstances, and often against parents as well, they know they will not be held liable or responsible at all, because of immunity protections they enjoy and the complete lack of effective oversight of county agencies — no matter what NC DHHS may try to tell you about their version of oversight.

    The system is broken, it is being abused, and the fact is, as NCCPR supports, there are so many children in Foster Care because too many children are being taken from parents to the detriment of the children and their parents, when no abuse or neglect exists. Most removals are based on allegations of neglect, not abuse, often over issues that are linked to low income, or other issues that have nothing to do with neglect or abuse. Many removals are performed in clear violation of state laws and due process, without hearings and in the absence of any emergency.
    Suggested reading: “Family Preservation is Safer Than Foster Care”
    and NCCPR’s Solutions – Due Process and Services

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