[co-authors: Alexander Volpicello and Na Hye Kim]
Due to COVID-19 court restrictions, there have been no adoption proceedings over the past 14 months in New York City, culminating in a backlog of children in need. Although these proceedings are not considered to be “emergencies,” the failure to facilitate permanency on such a wide scale, in fact, poses a threat to the health and safety of children. As courts are beginning to hear these matters again, and given the tremendous unmet need for legal services, Proskauer is partnering with Mobilization for Justice’s Kinship Caregiver Law Project to provide the pro bono legal support needed to help stabilize families.
Kinship care refers to the care of children by relatives or, in some jurisdictions, close family friends. In the State of New York, there are an estimated 179,000 kinship caregivers, with the majority being grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Currently, over 200,000 children in New York City are being raised by these caregivers due to circumstances that render their biological parents unable or unwilling to care for them, including neglect, abuse, and absence.
Research shows that living with relatives or other guardians who were consistently in the child’s life has long-term benefits and can be determinant of the child’s overall well-being. Relatives are the preferred resource for children who must be removed from their birthparents because it minimizes the trauma of removal and maintains the children’s connection to their families. Family connections are critical to a child’s healthy development and sense of belonging.
Facilitating kinship adoptions allows for maintaining these critical family connections, and increases the likelihood that children will be placed in a home with their siblings, live in the same neighborhood, and attend the same school. Minimizing lifestyle disruption is vital to promoting a strong foundation of stability for these children who may be dealing with the aftermath of their biological parents’ circumstances, or any child simply dealing with the trials of growing up. This has profound positive effects on all aspects of a child’s life, even beyond adolescence.
Studies have found that being placed into kinship care led to better behavioral and mental health outcomes for children when compared to those in foster care. Committed, close relationships with a supportive adult were found to have positive effects on the child’s stability well into adulthood, helping them attain self-sufficiency through education and employment, cultivate better mental and physical health, lower the likelihood of homelessness, and limit interactions with the criminal-legal system. However, these reports stress the urgent need to provide more financial, social, and – crucially – legal resources for kinship caregivers in lower income brackets. Having effective representation to facilitate a legally recognized relationship between child and caregiver can allow for coverage by the adult’s insurance and public benefits, permission to make important medical decisions, and the ability to enroll the child in school. Without this formalized legal relationship, there is no basis for government agencies to provide much-needed support, and no way for guardians to access additional caregiver benefits.