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Do kin background checks hurt kids?

A new Utah law that does away with emergency placement of abused or neglected children with relatives is sharpening criticism from two national child-protection advocacy groups and fraying family ties of those caught in the middle.

Advocacy groups over the weekend publicly called for the state's child welfare system to be put back under federal court oversight — a sanction that was lifted just this past May after 14 years of litigation and significant reforms in Utah's child protection services. Dozens of grandparents and other family members of children taken into state protective custody, instead of being placed with them, are also voicing their own complaints.

"I don't really understand what's going on," a Davis County grandmother told the Deseret Morning News. "All I know is, my 3-year-old grandson who's been living with me his whole life is down there where he doesn't know a soul and just thinks I don't love him anymore."

The child was taken into emergency shelter five weeks ago today when police arrested his mother for investigation in the possession of illegal and prescription drugs at the grandmother's house. On the advice of her attorney, who has requested a special custody hearing today, the grandmother does not want to be identified publicly.

"I guess the state and everybody is trying to do what's right; that's what I hope, anyway," she said. "But what's happening to my grandson is anything but right. When I see him, he won't even sit on my lap. All he asks is, 'Can I please come home, Grandma?' Can you imagine how much it hurts to tell him he can't?"

The child's mother, who had been at the house occasionally to change clothes and shower in the basement, was released on bail the day after her arrest and has not returned to the house. The 3-year-old was living upstairs and rarely if ever was in the basement, his grandmother said.

"They (the police and child welfare) know my situation — that I was trying to keep my family together as much as possible and protect him from a mom that kept promising she would get treatment. I didn't know what else to do, but I knew if I kicked her out, she would take (the child) with her."

Until a few months ago, the woman would almost automatically have been given temporary custody of her grandchild, and she will likely have him back eventually. But because the state is requiring criminal background checks on all potential foster or adoptive parents, the meantime continues. Another grandparent in almost the identical situation said she has been waiting since April for clearance.

State child protective services managers and case workers don't like the situation either, and they are conducting the checks as fast as they can. The extra step before placement is a by-product of the new Adam Walsh Child Safety Act passed by Congress in 2006 and state lawmakers taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach when drafting a bill implementing the act earlier this year.

A legislative subcommittee is figuring out how best to undo the tighter regulations and make recommendations to lawmakers in two weeks.

Child protection reform advocates, who have been watching Utah's system as well as the plaintiff in a class action lawsuit filed against the state 14 years ago, are calling Utah's action "more of the same" and "a disappointment," especially considering the number of important reforms that have been implemented in Utah.

Adding kinship background checks for emergency placements is "a blunder, plain and simple," said Richard Wexler, executive director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform in Alexandria, Va.

None of the other 49 states seem to have a problem with implementation, Wexler said, noting that neither his nor any other other advocacy group has found another state having the same problem.

"At a minimum, Utah jumped the gun and amended state law based on a misunderstanding," Wexler said, "with tragic results."

Several studies have found levels of abuse of children in foster homes with strangers and in institutions far higher than reflected in official figures that involve agencies investigating themselves. In contrast, research shows that kinship placements are not just more stable and better for children's well-being, they also are, on average, safer than what should properly be called "stranger care."

State Division of Child and Family Services Director Duane Betournay told lawmakers earlier this month that the state is not anti-relative placement, as some claim.

"We don't have a bias against kin; we have a bias toward the safety of kids. It's a trade-off between safety and risk, and lawmakers will have to determine what that is.

"Some people are rightfully very upset," he added. "If I were kin or kid, I would be. No amount of time is acceptable away from loving parents or family."

The grandmother in Davis County couldn't agree more.

"They said he was being endangered by being exposed to drugs," she said. "The damage that has been done because they took him into custody isn't just a risk, it's real. I don't know if he'll ever get over this. I know I won't."