A newly signed law is working to take a step in the right direction to hear from family members in court hearings about what could be in the child’s best interest.
The law is giving more rights specifically to what’s called kinship caregivers.
Kinship providers or caregivers are essentially foster parents, but one the child knows, such as aunts, uncle, grandparents, or even a family friend.
According to child advocates, like Haven Evans with Pennsylvania Family Support Alliance (PFSA), children do much better in kinship placement.
Evans is the director of programs at PFSA. The non-profit organization works to support and education all families involved within Pennsylvania’s child welfare system. They were huge supports of House Bill 1058.
Before House Bill 1058 was signed into law on Dec. 14. Before it was signed into law, kinship caregivers didn’t have any legal rights to speak up in a courtroom during custody hearings.
Pennsylvania kinship caregiver Bobbie McBurney-Johnson has had custody of her two grandchildren for nearly five years.
She said the passing of this law is a huge win for kinship caregivers.
“I think generally the voices of kinship caregivers are it’s priceless,” McBurney-Johnson said.
She and her husband gained custody of their grandchildren after the kids’ mother entered rehab and father was in prison.
She said it’s not always easy being a kinship caregiver, but she wouldn’t change it for the world.
“Most grandparents, I would say at least ones that I’ve talked to, aside for the challenges, will always come back to they wouldn’t have done it any differently,” McBurney-Johnson said.
She said when it came time to advocate for the children to be placed in their care, they felt heard by the courts.
However, that’s not always the case for all kinship caregivers.
House Bill 1058 was introduced by Representative Rick Krajewski (D) from Philadelphia. The bill allows kinship care providers to speak directly to a judge and share what they believe is in a child’s best interest.
He said the idea for the bill was brought to his office by a constituent who felt she couldn’t advocate for herself in her nephew’s placement case.
McBurney said it happened too often in the formal system that wouldn’t allow kinship families to share important information in court.
“You know their processes in place that would, let’s say even if a call was made, they could come on a day that they’re not going to see what we might see on the regular that might cause them to make a very different decision in terms of the well-being of that child,” McBurney said.
According to PFSA, only 42 percent of children in Pennsylvania are placed with kinship caregivers.
Evans said the hope with the passing of this law is that more children will be placed with kinship caregivers.
“So if I was in an aunt walking to the court room to help support my niece, I wouldn’t have been able to have that judge hear from my voice what I thought l would be best for my niece, whereas now I would have that chance,” Evans said.
Prior to House Bill 1058, children and youth services (CYS) would do kinship finding, meaning they would take as much information from family or close friends and relay that information to the court for a judge to make a decision on where the child or children should be placed.
Evans said the problem with kinship finding is the voice from actual relatives was missing from the courtroom.
Previously, it was up to the judge’s discretion on if they wanted to hear from kinship care providers. Now, it’s a requirement.
The language in the bill also allows the judge to decide after those placement hearings if the kinship provider can participate in future hearings.
PFSA said the new bill doesn’t remove the role of CYS. The agency will still do kinship finding and relay information to the courts on behalf of kinship providers when necessary.
Evans said the law is a step in the right direction, however there is still more that needs to be done to support kinship families and children in the system.
Krajewski said the passing of House Bill 1058 allows for them to begin looking at continued legislation to bring more consistency across all counties, for all families in the child welfare system.
From WHP Harrisburg, December 27, 2023