More Long Island children are being diverted from the foster care system into the homes of relatives, mirroring what experts said was a growing trend toward finding familiar surroundings for vulnerable youth, county officials said.
The trend is particularly pronounced in Suffolk, where 561 children are now living with relatives outside of the foster care system, more than double the number five years ago, officials said. In Nassau, the number has risen slightly to 44 children, officials said.
Brigitte Castellano, executive director of the National Committee of Grandparents for Childrens' Rights, based at Stony Brook University, said her group has noticed the changes nationally, but it is difficult to track statistically because the children are outside of the foster care system.
"There has been a tremendous change in philosophy," Castellano said. "It's better for the kids. They maintain their culture, their heritage, and their family."
It also saves county money. Most relatives forgo monthly foster care stipends of more than $1,000 monthly because it requires fingerprinting, weeks of training and no contact with the biological parent. Instead, they apply for welfare grants of $400 monthly per child or bear the costs on their own.
In Nassau, more than $1 million in foster care funds has been saved this year. Suffolk's projection Wednesday of $5 million in savings prompted County Executive Steve Levy to issue a news release.
"It's a win for the taxpayer because we save $5 million a year," Levy said in an interview. "And there's no question the child is better off."
It may not be that simple, advocates said.
Richard Wexler, executive director of the Alexandria, Va.- based National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, said relatives generally provide better care than foster parents. The savings, though, come at the expense of relatives who tend to be poorer than foster care parents.
"If anything, [relatives] could use this help even more," Wexler said.
Views differed on what started the trend. Castellano attributed it to a 2003 New York law requiring grandparents be notified after a Child Protective Services removal and a 2008 federal law mandating that counties make efforts to find relatives.
In Suffolk, the foster care population has fallen from nearly 1,100 in 2004 to 712, as of the end of August, officials said. The drop comes as even more children are being removed from parental care as abuse and neglect reports hit record levels this year, officials said.
Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Gregory Blass said diverting children from foster care was eased by better access to Suffolk police records that can identify potential relatives.