A bill that would require the Department of Children and Family Services to thoroughly search for adult family members of recently-fostered children within 30 days of taking custody of them advanced without objection from the House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday.
The bill follows a July 2020 story in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate of Jacob and Courtney Landry, a New Orleans couple who were looking to take permanent custody of “Z.U.,” a 22-month-old baby they’d been fostering for almost a year, when a court awarded custody of the boy to an uncle in New York.
“He is a trusting, loving child,” Courtney Landry said in that news report. “And now this experience of deep betrayal by people he trusts. To him, it might as well have been our choice to leave him at the airport. He doesn’t know.”
The boy’s uncle, Will Angelino, told the newspaper that DCFS ignored him and forced him to hire an attorney to fight for custody. “Why would I not fight for my nephew?” he asked.
Sen. Patrick McMath (R-Covington), the sponsor of SB 143, said his bill would make family reunification a priority from the start so a situation like the Landrys experienced doesn’t come up again. While his bill “puts an emphasis and priority on identifying and finding family and kin,” it also “levels the playing field” for couples like the Landrys who had established a relationship with the child.
The bill would allow children under 6-years-old to stay in a home with unrelated guardians “if the child is in a stable home environment where the child’s physical and emotional needs are met by a person who has a significant relationship with the child,” and if the court find that “it would be detrimental to the child’s well-being if the child is removed from the current caregiver,” according to the legislation.
Family reunification has been the priority in Louisiana. According to a DCFS fact sheet 2,187 children in state custody were placed into homes with adult family members in 2019, compared to 893 children who were adopted by people not related to them.
Rep. Jason Hughes (D-New Orleans) said when he read about the Landrys’ forced separation from Z.U., he “had not been so heartbroken in many years.” He said he knew the state needed to find a solution, and when McMath filed his bill, Hughes said, “the Lord has answered my prayers.”
DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters testified in favor of SB 143, saying “Our kids tell us all the time, no matter how great their foster care experience is, they want to reconnect with family.”
“None of us want children to linger in foster care. None of us want that to be a life experience,” Walters said to the committee. “We want to connect children to families as quickly as possible and make those families ‘forever families’ for these kids.”
The bill, which the Senate had already unanimously approved, now moves to the House floor.