Well-intended DHS policy might not be best for keiki
The state Department of Human Services is making significant changes in its approach in placing our foster care children in kinship care. Ideally, it has always been good practice to place our foster children with family who are protective and meet the licensing requirements of the department.
However, due to the new emphasis for kinship care, requirements have now come down to assessing a prospective relative placement by risk versus safety. A risk can be defined as isolated incidences of abuse versus a pervasive pattern of abuse or neglect. By our definition, "kin" is defined as anybody who might be related by blood to the child or anyone who generally has connections or a bond with the child or family.
One's first thought might be that there are already risk factors because of the "apple does not fall far from the tree" syndrome. However, we often are able to find family members who are appropriate and protective for the children.
This is a well-meaning policy directive, though it does burden DHS to look for these family members, to encourage and teach them the importance of kinship care. We are doing this through Ohana Family Conferencing, which has become an important tool in empowering our families and providing collaboration with the providers. However, many DHS social workers are feeling the pressure of to overlook potential risk factors in the interest of kinship placement.
The state is beginning to become more involved in our cases in the interest of kinship care, which one might argue is not necessarily in the best interest of the child. There is now more emphasis that we "rehabilitate" and work with the family members who are interested in caring for their kin. Younger children who have been in foster placement can and will be removed from their foster placement should a family member "resurrect" and ask for the child, despite the harm and disruption this might cause the child. This does not serve the best interest of the child.
One of the troubling facts about our children in foster care, particularly older children with special needs, is that they are very difficult to place in foster care. Even when they are placed in the best of foster homes, these children often remain a great challenge to their foster families, and they run away from their foster home to look for their birth families. With these children, the approach I take is not to do any further harm, which is certainly the outcome supported by the department. Often, however, I have had to compromise and lower my expectations with the family to ensure the overall safety of the child.
My concern is with the new policy directives from Lillian Koller, the director of Human Services. Although I agree with her passion and idealism and her goals of ensuring the welfare of the children in foster care, I recommend that she take a closer look at the means to achieving that end. I wholeheartedly believe in kinship care, but from my training, experience and mistakes as a DHS social worker for the past 13 years, I have strong convictions about what works and does not work for our children in foster care.
I look at each case individually and make my decisions not on what is most expedient in policy and what the "research" indicates, but what is truly in the best interest of our children. More than ever, many DHS social workers feel micromanaged by the state to the point that their ability to make decisions in the best interest of our children is compromised.
Grace Gabat is a social worker with the state Department of Human Services