New S.C. law expands options to help more children in foster care system

Parent and child holding hands.
Parent and child holding hands.(Pixabay)
Published: Sep. 23, 2022 at 1:23 PM EDT
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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - It takes someone with a big heart to step in and care for a child if their parents cannot.

The state agency that oversees South Carolina’s foster care system said, in many cases, the best person to do that is someone the child already has a relationship with and who knows them.

“Caregivers are special people, and it’s not easy. It’s not easy being a caregiver,” said Virgie Anderson, a kinship caregiver.

It is a role Anderson knows well, having cared for five of her grandchildren at one point and still caring for one now.

“There were lots of needs for the children,” she said. “They were going through so much. They needed financial help and there were mental problems, so there is so many needs that we have, so I’m glad for today.”

Anderson joined state leaders and fellow caregivers Thursday at Charleston HALOS — an organization that supports family members and loved ones who step into a caregiving role for children in the foster system — to celebrate a new state law, which Gov. Henry McMaster commemoratively signed.

The law, which went into effect in May, expands the definition of kinship care, which is when a loved one cares for a child when their parent is not able to do so, to now include fictive kin.

Those are people not related by birth, marriage or adoption to a child but who share a significant emotional relationship with them, like a family friend, neighbor or coach.

“This new law will help us protect children, getting them to a safe environment while lessening the trauma that comes with removing a child from the home,” said Sen. Katrina Shealy, R-Lexington and the bill’s sponsor.

Shealy’s bill passed both the state Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously, and South Carolina is now the 29th state in the country with this type of legislation in place.

The new law allows fictive kin caregivers to receive support and resources from the state to help them, as well as access services, such as being able to obtain a copy of the child’s birth certificate.

“When you’re taking on children, it costs money, right,” Department of Social Services Director Michael Leach said. “So this allows at least children who may have come into the foster care system to work toward a connection with kin and maybe the broader fictive kin to where we can support them.”

Leach’s department oversees South Carolina’s foster care system, and currently, about one in five children in it are being cared for by a kinship caregiver.

DSS estimates there are about 70,000 kinship caregivers in South Carolina at this time, though not all of them are in the DSS system.

“We’re seeing children enter the foster care system, but we know they have connections — family connections, fictive kin-type connections — and we need to make sure that they’re connected with those folks to minimize trauma, to help with cultural connections because they do better,” Leach said.

This new kinship care law isn’t the only one passed this year to strengthen South Carolina’s foster system: Another recent change now allows children in the state’s custody to receive DSS support and services until they are 21. Those resources had previously been cut off at 18.

But Leach said the work is far from done to help children in South Carolina’s foster system.

When the new legislative session begins in January, he is asking the General Assembly to approve a type of program that supports permanent placements for foster children living with kinship caregivers if they are out of state custody. Leach said 40 other states already have a program like this in place.

People who are interested in fostering, in the traditional sense or through kinship care, can learn more by visiting heartfeltcalling.org. Leach said South Carolina is in particular need of caregivers for teenagers, who make up about 30% of kids in the foster care system.