As presiding judge for five years for Chicago’s Cook County Child Protection Division, I have ruled on hundreds of difficult cases involving children who have been the victim of abuse or neglect. They want nothing more than a safe and permanent place to call home. It is my job, along with the caring individuals who work for the local child welfare agency, to protect these kids, ensure their well-being and make decisions in their best interest. My personal goal is to get them in a family as soon as possible and, when possible, to help prevent them from entering foster care in the first place.
I’ve heard many cases where children were unable to remain with their parents but had grandparents or other relatives who stepped forward to care for them. Working with social workers and others, we determine if these relative caregivers will be able to provide a safe home for these children. The benefits of relative caregivers are obvious. The children can remain in contact with their brothers and sisters, other family members and the community. Relative caregivers can provide security and reassurance during a time that is otherwise fraught with uncertainty and frustration. Grandparent caregivers often assume this responsibility in daunting circumstances—with little or no notice, very few supports and shaky financial resources—but they care deeply about their grandchildren. Despite the fact that these grandparent caregivers are relatives of the children, however, they are treated by the system like any other foster parent.
As a judge presiding over these cases, it is my job to ask all the questions necessary of these caregivers to assess their ability to care for children who cannot be safely returned to their parents. These caregivers tell me about their daily struggles—one spoke of her dilemma about whether to fill her own prescriptions or buy food or clothing for the young children in her care. Another related how difficult it is to navigate the complicated child welfare system in order to get the help—be it extra tutoring for school or therapy—that her grandchildren need. Another shared her frustration with the constant visits from social workers and the paper- work and approvals process required for her grandchild to be able to participate in everyday activities such as a sleepover at a friend’s house, a field trip or a family gathering in another town.
My experience as a judge tells me that we must make it easier, not more difficult, for grandparents and other relative caregivers to take on critical responsibilities in providing a safe and permanent home for the children who need their care. Programs such as subsidized guardianship, which allows a child to exit foster care to live safely and permanently with a grandparent or other legal guardian, will help achieve this. Subsidized guardianship provides relative caregivers with the same resources that a foster family, made up of strangers, would receive. Subsidized guardianship provides financial assistance to relative caregivers to help them obtain the support and services the children in their care need. The national, nonpartisan Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care recommends subsidized guardianship as a concrete way to reform foster care; and many policymakers, advocates, judges and caregivers con- cur. It is time that we all work together to assist our nation’s foster children and support the grandparents and others who step up and help
Nancy Salyers is the former presiding judge of Chicago’s Cook County Child Protection Division and is co-director of Fostering Results, a national education and awareness campaign highlighting the need for foster care reform.
Originally Published on GRAND Magazine in January-February 2007 Issue.