To expedite safe and stable placements for children during the COVID-19 crisis, states can temporarily license relatives/kin or foster parents.
Federal law gives state child welfare agencies broad discretion to establish licensing standards and apply them to any relative or foster family home eligible for funding under Title IV-E or Title IV-B, the main sources of federal foster care funding. That means child welfare agencies that qualify for these funds can modify licensing standards as long as they are reasonably in accord with recommended standards of national organizations. Even before the pandemic, many states were already approving emergency or provisional licenses when caregivers met certain basic safety and other requirements.
In the face of COVID-19 response, many child welfare agencies are experiencing difficulties with staff shortages and remote work requirements which make the licensing process more challenging. Several agencies have inquired about additional licensing flexibility that might be allowed during this period to expedite the placement of children.
In order for states to receive federal foster care funding, the Social Security Act requires state child welfare agencies to establish and maintain licensing standards that are “reasonably in accord with recommended standards of national organizations,” including “standards related to admission policies, safety, sanitation and protection of civil rights, and which shall permit use of reasonable and prudent parenting standard.” This requirement is already written in a way that gives the state licensing entity broad leeway in deciding how to license kin and foster family homes to comply with basic safety requirements. Federal law also allows states to waive non-safety related standards on a case-by-case basis in relative/kin foster family homes for specific children in care.
About 35 states already allow provisional licenses for relatives/kin and others to care for children immediately, following basic safety checks on homes and household members and pending the completion of the full licensing process within a certain period. Some states that do not allow provisional licenses instead allow for emergency or temporary placements. In these situations, states require the same type of background checks, time limitations and applications for full licensure, but instead of licensing the home provisionally, the states authorize it as an “emergency placement.” Almost all of the states with these emergency placement options apply them only to relatives/kin. It should be noted, however, that many states have broad definitions of “kin” to include adults without a blood relationship but with whom the child has a family-like relationship.
For these reasons, state licensing entities can continue to use provisional and emergency placement options to quickly place children with appropriate caregivers during the COVID-19 crisis as long as basic safety requirements are met.
State child welfare agencies can place children in provisionally licensed homes, but in normal circumstances, they cannot begin to draw down federal IV-E foster care funding unless the eligible children are in a fully licensed or approved home. This requirement has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. As of May 11, 2020, the Children’s Bureau issued a Program Instruction that allows Title IV-E child welfare agencies to request flexibility to claim Title IV-E funding on behalf of an otherwise eligible child who is placed in a provisionally licensed home “if a declared major disaster precludes full completion of the licensing process.” More specifically, the agency must “complete as many of the requirements for licensure as practicable, taking into account local requirements related to physical/social distancing guidelines and shelter in place orders and completing any remaining licensing requirements as soon as it is safe to do so. The agency must also ensure that the foster family home is safe for children. To take advantage of this flexibility, the child welfare agency must submit a form requesting this option and submit it to the Children’s Bureau Regional Program Office.
Federal Licensing Requirements for State Child Welfare Agencies (Sec. 471. [42 U.S.C. 671] (a)(10) of the Social Security Act
Children’s Bureau Program Instruction: Stafford Act Flexibility for Certain Title IV-E Requirements ACYF-CB-PI-20-10)
Children’s Bureau Letter on IV-E Flexibility During the COVID-19 epidemic
Children’s Bureau Child Welfare Policy Manual on foster care licensing
Model Family Foster Home Licensing Standards (National Association of Regulatory Administrators, ABA Center on Children and the Law, Annie E. Casey Foundation and Generations United
Grandfamilies.org: Searchable database on relevant state laws regarding kinship families (search under category: “Foster Care Licensing: Provisional Licensure/Emergency Placement)
Special thanks to Heidi Redlich-Epstein, Director of Kinship Policy, American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law for her expertise in answering this question.