Jun 4

2024

Falling short on foster care

Many counties in New York, including Erie and Niagara, are falling short of state goals to place foster children in familiar settings.

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco. 


This story is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

Where Kin Come First: The Imprint’s analysis of New York child welfare agencies’ reliance on family and friends reveals where children end up depends a lot on geography. Part one of a two-part series.


Six years ago, the federal government made a dramatic shift in the way it funds foster care. Instead of only paying states after they removed children from parents accused of abuse or neglect, local authorities could be reimbursed to avoid family separation through preventive measures that would keep kids out of group homes and foster placements with unfamiliar caregivers.

New York officials embraced the goals of the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act. In a fundamental break from the past, the state’s new direction would acknowledge racial inequity and the social determinants of health” — poverty, violence and substance use disorders. The state would focus on “empowering families,” putting them in charge of their own lives.

When children cannot live safely with their parents, people in their family and friend networks are considered the next best option. A “robust and meaningful kin-first culture,” would replace past practice, pledged Sheila Poole, former commissioner of the New York Office of Children and Family Services. “We know, and the data tell us,” Poole wrote, “that a child’s connection to their family is paramount.” 

Two and a half years later, 39% of all foster children live with relatives or people they know, such as neighbors, teachers or family friends, state data show. That percentage is an improvement over the 2018 figure of 30%, but well under the state’s 2021 goal of placing half of all foster children with kin. 

The Imprint’s first-ever analysis of its kind reveals that parts of the state have performed far better than others. In some New York counties there are virtually no foster children placed with relatives. Just across those county lines, as many as two-thirds of kids remained within family networks. Such contrasts exist in urban and rural parts of the state, and in bordering regions with similar demographics.

“We should care about this disparity across counties,” said Eunju Lee, an associate professor at the University of Albany who studies kinship families. “Counties that aren’t doing a good job with kinship placement should be thinking about why they’re not.” 

Eunju Lee.

The Imprint interviewed Lee and 21 other child welfare experts for this story. They included parents and relatives of children in foster care, attorneys for kids and parents, agency leaders, kinship care advocates and social work professors. To a great extent, there was agreement on why certain counties are more likely to place foster children with kin: They’re willing to evaluate past practices, and they invest in overhauling systems that don’t properly serve the goal of family unity — at times with help from outside experts. 

That change typically comes from the head of the child welfare agency who clearly states priorities.

“A lot of it is leadership willing to actually dedicate the time and the effort to making this change,” said consultant James Czarniak, former deputy commissioner of Onondaga County’s child welfare agency. 

Professor Lee agreed.

“If they don’t believe in kinship care,” she said, “they’re not going to place children with kin.”

Counties vary widely in placing children

The Imprint’s database draws on figures obtained from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services. It includes all 62 counties, and breaks down foster care placements by how many kids lived with kin between January and December 2023, the latest date available.  



Overall, county placement-with-kin rates range from a low of 1% to a high of 81%. New York City — made up of five of the 10 largest counties — places 45% of all foster children with kin. 

In the state’s southwest corner, 64% of all Allegany County foster children — 29 of the 45 removed from parents — lived with family last fall. Just north in Livingston County, none of the 15 children in foster care were placed with family. 

Monroe County has one of the lowest kinship placement rates in the state, just 15%.

“My sense of things from the outside is that there is no encouragement at all” for kinship care in Monroe County, said Rochester family lawyer Kate Woods. “It is not presented as an option.” 

Child welfare experts pointed to common traits shared by counties that were less likely to house foster children with kin. Among the top reasons were local agencies without adequate staff, high turnover, and employees too overburdened to help relative caregivers become licensed foster parents. Local leaders and court officials also didn’t prioritize kinship care, they said.

Other concerns centered on a culture that appeared to allow bias to enter into decision-making — family members disqualified as caregivers because they were low-income, had decades-old convictions or a past history with child protective services.

In September, the Biden administration finalized regulations that ease licensing barriers often faced by relatives. The reform grants new flexibility for so-called “non-safety” requirements, such as rules barring foster children from sleeping in bunk beds. But specific changes are left to states’ discretion. 

Related issues are being litigated in New York. A 2021 class-action lawsuit filed in federal court on behalf of 14 children alleges that the state and New York City are unconstitutionally denying kin foster placements because of the relatives prior criminal convictions or child maltreatment allegations. The case is now on appeal, after a district court judge dismissed the case on technical grounds last September.

Becoming licensed as foster parents is required for kinship caregivers to receive monthly payments for the children they take into their homes. But if such an arrangement is formalized, paying relatives can be the more costly option for counties. So in some parts of the state, willing relatives are encouraged to take children into their homes informally, and then rely on public assistance instead of foster care payments.

For this series, relatives frustrated that their homes weren’t considered as potential foster care placements spoke at length with The Imprint about their concerns, events that were verified with attorneys and corresponding documents when available. County officials were offered the opportunity to respond, but declined to comment on individual cases.

The relatives say they confronted a stereotyped notion of “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree,” which can be found in foster care cases across the country. In New York, observers say, it’s particularly apparent in smaller communities, where public agencies have seen generations of families come through the foster care, justice and other social service systems. 

One mother in rural Livingston County said her children were removed by the county child welfare agency and placed with strangers in foster care after her arrest on drug charges — even though a qualified relative had stepped up to offer her home. Echoing the concerns of others interviewed for this article, Jennifer Dale asked: “Why isn’t my family worthy of taking care of my children?” 

Counties defend their performance 

A spokesperson for one county with a relative placement rate that is among the lowest in the state defended her employer’s practices. 

Monroe County spokesperson Meaghan McDermott said in an email that while the county places just 15% of foster youth with relatives, in some cases the Department of Human Services removes a child and identifies relatives to take immediate custody. Those arrangements are approved by a judge but not classified as foster care placements. 

“Kinship care placements are always our first choice, provided they are safe, appropriate and in the best interest of the child,” McDermott wrote.

She also noted that the county’s “kinship specialist team” reaches out to relatives when children in their families come to the attention of CPS, providing them with a budget sheet so they are aware of the financial support available if they choose to become licensed foster parents. 

If they move forward in the process, background checks and home assessments might show kin caregivers aren’t appropriate for placement, McDermott added, or they might be approved, but not meet the certification standards. Regardless, some  support and services will be provided. 

However, too often, McDermott said, relatives “overwhelmingly choose NOT to certify as foster parents.” 

Several years ago, the Monroe County department held a focus group to understand that reasoning. McDermott said the participants reported they didn’t have time for the required training, didn’t want involvement with the child welfare agency in their day-to-day lives, or didn’t want the child stigmatized for being in foster care. 

 

Livingston County Commissioner of Social Services Tracy McCaughey reported a similar experience in her county. In an email, McCaughey stated her workers routinely seek out kin. But some relatives decline to become certified “despite encouragement and staff reviewing the benefits” — sometimes because they think they won’t have custody for long before the child is reunified with their parents. 

In other cases, factors identified through the state child abuse registry or a criminal background check may prevent a relative from being a viable option. “Safety for children remains the priority,” McCaughey said. 

She also noted that the county doesn’t place many children in foster care to begin with, and instead seeks ways to prevent foster care removals. Livingston had just 15 children in foster care as of last September, compared with 45 in Allegany — a county with a smaller total population.  

Livingston County family’s struggle

Child welfare cases that lead to removals are generally complex, often involving weighty matters of intergenerational trauma, deep poverty, substance abuse, mental health challenges and domestic violence. But when family separations result, the problems can intensify.

In Livingston County, Dale said she fought unsuccessfully for her stepmother Linda to care for her son, then 2, after she was arrested and charged with selling drugs in the town of Dansville. But both said in interviews that the housing arrangement was not given fair consideration. 

Dale had a troubled past, spending almost nine months in foster care herself when she was 15. Struggling to pay bills and pregnant, the single mother said she turned to “fast money.” 

“I'm not proud of it,” Dale said. 

After she pleaded guilty, the Livingston County Department of Social Services removed her son and placed him with unrelated foster parents, she said. The day after her daughter was born about two months later, the newborn was moved into the foster home as well. Dale said she was unable to sustain breastfeeding with twice-weekly visits.

“I didn’t think she was going to stay alive. I knew it was all my fault,” she said. “I was crying every day.”

Amid the dire circumstances, Linda stepped forward, offering to help. Dale’s son had lived with Linda — who asked that her last name be kept private — when he was younger, and she remained close to the family. But in a small community, she quickly came to feel, being known to the system can lead officials to write off an entire family.  

Linda told county workers she was happy to take the children while Dale got her life back together. The retired home health aide, who worked for the county health department for 20 years, had an empty bedroom and a big backyard. She passed a background check and the county presented no clear reason that she wasn’t a suitable placement, she said. She has no history of criminal or child welfare system involvement.  

But the county refused to place Dale’s son with her and didn’t tell her about her options, such as getting approved as a foster placement for Dale’s children, she said. And it later declined her offer to take in his sister.

Linda believes she was viewed unfavorably by the child welfare agency because she once lived with Dale’s father, who had criminal convictions, including for domestic violence, that Linda said were 20 years old. She agreed not to allow Dale’s father into her home if she were given custody of the children. But the department refused the offer and placed Dale’s newborn and small son with strangers

Linda said she contested the decision in court. But she came away feeling the judge had been hostile to her and her views. 

“He acted like I was a criminal and they just had to find out what I was guilty of,” she said.

The county returned Dale’s children to her in late 2023. 

High stakes for kids and families

New York State’s foster care prevention plan states clearly the reason kinship placements are so needed. 

Jean Galle.

“Research shows that when out of home placement is deemed a needed intervention, placing a child with a relative leads to stronger family bonds between the parent and child, fewer placement disruptions, shorter lengths of stay, and reduces the impact of trauma.” Connections “critical to health development” are disrupted when children are taken from parents, numerous studies show

Foster children placed with family are less likely to re-enter the system, and more likely to succeed in school. As adults, they’re more likely to find jobs and pursue higher education, and less likely to draw on public assistance or enter the criminal justice system. 

Since 2018, the state’s Office of Children and Family Services has released a blizzard of memos directing county agencies to prioritize relatives when placing kids in foster care. 

“Kinship placements are some of the most stable we have and are more likely to be a success,” said Jean Galle, vice president of community-based services at the Hillside Family of Agencies, which serves counties in central and western New York. “The whole point of Family First is that kids do better with family connections.” 

Cost-savings play a role

Too often, however, counties eye cost savings ahead of children’s well being, advocates say.

In New York, relatives who are licensed as foster parents receive between $900 and $3,700 a month per child to help cover costs, with additional funds available for clothes, transportation, and school supplies. If they later choose to adopt or become a legal guardian, kinship caregivers are eligible for similar monthly payments. Specialized services are also available, including educational support, counseling sessions and help coordinating the child’s medical care.

None of that is available when counties place children with relatives outside the foster care system. If they must rely on public assistance, relatives caring for one child are eligible for roughly $400 a month through the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families “child-only” grant, a federal entitlement.

This spares the county having to pay them out of its foster care budget. Some counties might be less likely to place children with kin because they include that in their calculation, said Pat O’Brien, executive director at New York’s Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition.

“So they say, ‘Put this kid in your grandmother’s home,’ and then the grandma’s got to go apply for a child-only grant,” he said, “which is minuscule compared to what you would get as a kinship foster home.”

Family First

Under state law, within 30 days of a child’s removal, counties must identify relatives and educate them on custody options, including becoming approved foster care providers. Agencies must also set up a “kin-first firewall” requiring managers to review any decision to place a child with a stranger and make sure all relative placement options have been exhausted. The state also requires “Kinship Champions” — at least one staff person “with the knowledge and skills to support kinship care at all stages in the life of a case.”

Without that help, many relatives can’t make it through the licensing and approval process, which involves home study, training classes, fingerprinting and an application asking for detailed financial information.

Kin must also pass a criminal background check. This alone can be an obstacle in a country defined by hundreds of years of racial discrimination, where Black adults in heavily policed neighborhoods have a high chance of run-ins with the law. 

New York state has allowed counties flexibility to approve relatives even if they have a criminal conviction, as long as it isn’t a felony involving child safety, drugs, or certain violent crimes. But that policy directive appears to be inconsistently applied, said James Hinman, a Monroe County children’s attorney. Hinman said in several cases he provided the family court with names of relatives who could care for his clients. But months later, the Department of Human Services informed him they never received the names.

Rochester residents Tonya and Anthony Jones say they are among the relatives pushed aside without due consideration. The couple has cared for two of grandchildren since 2014, as their daughter struggled with substance use and served time in prison. 

The Monroe County Department of Human Services first placed the children with strangers. Tonya and Anthony Jones filed a court petition to obtain temporary custody, which a judge granted, and they’ve cared for the children ever since.  

But Tonya Jones said county social workers never told the couple they could obtain a foster parent license and receive financial and other benefits. As a result, since taking the kids in, it’s been “a hard struggle,” she said. Her husband works as a home health aide, and Tonya has a disability and isn’t able to work.

Instead, over the years they’ve taken out loans during the holidays to buy gifts and done odd jobs to pay for school supplies. Monthly food stamps have never amounted to more than $300.

Hardships for caregivers

To be sure, there are relatives who fear taking in children if it means falling under CPS surveillance, investigations with disproportionate impacts on people of color.

But family court attorneys interviewed for this series noted a far more pervasive experience in counties less likely to place with kin: Relatives may be told they can become licensed foster parents, but are not given help to navigate the complex process. 

Leelani Voigtland, director of services in Sullivan County, said helping relatives become licensed requires assistance from social workers who have the time to help. When forms need filling out, for instance, workers can say, “Why don't I come over and I will write it all down as you talk to me about it?’” Voigtland said. 

But Sullivan County is short on staff, and last fall had nine caseworker openings, with few prospects. 

“Every county has a caseworker list, and they hire off their list,” she said. “Our list is empty.” 

Short-staffed or not, the county helps relatives through the process, Voigtland added by email. And in January 2024, the county created a dedicated kinship and permanency unit.

Relative caregivers taking in foster children tend to be low-income, single and elderly — grandparents and great-aunts living on fixed incomes who have cared for generations of children on tight budgets.

Absent the far-higher payments they would receive as licensed foster providers, they end up relying on meager fixed-income budgets, retirement or Social Security benefits. Visits to food banks and reliance on faith institutions and charities  get these households through each month.

David and Lisa Brennan.

“Fictive kin” — such as godparents, neighbors and family friends — are also supposed to be prioritized by child welfare agencies and afforded the financial support they need to take in foster children. But that doesn't always happen.

Lisa and David Brennan of Rochester learned this firsthand. In 2021, Lisa Brennan, a teacher’s aide for special-needs children in the Spencerport Central School District, took in a student named Katie, then 6, who had been shuffled between foster homes. Brennan and other school staff could see she was being neglected in foster care, and she’d come to school unkempt and hungry. 

The Brennans were a good fit with the state’s goal of getting more foster children into homes with people they know. In 2020, the state expanded the definition of a relative to include fictive kin. 

And the couple were more than willing to step up. They took in the little girl in with a cardboard box, a few toys and a plastic bag full of filthy clothes. She has severe autism, and speaks just a few words.  

After she moved in, the Brennans said they didn’t see anyone from the Monroe County child welfare agency for another month. And for the first nine months, they said, they got no financial help — not even the Social Security payments the child was owed. David Brennan, who works as a heavy-equipment operator, said no one at the county explained they could get licensed as foster parents and receive payments to care for her.

“I would do it anyhow,” he said, his voice breaking with emotion. “As far as I'm concerned, this is my daughter.” 

But it wasn’t easy for the couple. David’s construction work is off and on in the winter, and Lisa made $15 an hour as a teacher’s aide. 

“It was definitely a struggle,” David Brennan said. 


Attorney Kate Woods.


Attorney Woods took on the Brennans’ case pro bono. Last spring, she told them about a state-funded guardianship option. But first, they would have to become licensed foster parents. So the Brennans researched on their own what they’d need to do to get approved, completed the required 30-hour training, submitted to criminal background checks and fingerprinting and agreed to two home inspections. They also made home improvements to meet the licensing standards — adding a railing, installing carbon monoxide detectors, and gating the fireplace. 

Three years after the school girl moved in with the couple, last October, the couple received their first foster care payments, about $100 a day. It’s had a big impact. Lisa was able to leave her job to care for the little girl full time, ensuring an adult was always at home and making it easy to transport her to doctor’s appointments and after-school activities during the week.

“This money definitely makes a big difference in our household,” said David. “It goes toward taking care of Katie.” 


Coming tomorrow, a closer look at counties that make sure foster youth live within their kinship networks.

Michael Fitzgerald contributed to this report.

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