Today's guest article was written by John Schafer, a Pickens County resident and Vietnam-era veteran who heads us the Grandparents Rights Association of South Carolina. He is one of the most-recognized activists on Family Court and DSS reforms related to the rights of grandparents and other close relatives in South Carolina:
As a concerned grandparent and citizen, I have been working in the family rights movement for about five years, working to protect the rights of family members to play roles in the lives of their relatives. In many states, including South Carolina, grandparents have few legal rights and can be left unable to be involved in the lives of their grandchildren, in spite of considerable research which shows that involvement can make a vital difference in the lives of children. While there has been little progress in our state on these issues, the one bright spot where real progress was made was when Governor Mark Sanford signed regarding grandparents’ visitation rights bill into law back in 2010 (the full text of the law can be seen on this page: http://grasc.org/news/news.html).
Since then, we have been working to do more to strengthen Grandparents rights and give them more opportunities to make a difference - with lots of encouragement but little result until recently.
One area of concern is ensuring that children taken from homes by Department of Social Services be kept by close relatives whenever possible, instead of being put in the state’s foster care system. Grandparents, who are most closely-related to children in these cases, are often both the most concerned and best able to care for children in these unfortunate situations, but current state law does not give them preferential consideration for placement by courts.
There are all kinds of statistics proving relative placement is far better than the foster system:
- The fact that kids in the system are 1/3 as likely to graduate from high school, and 3 times MORE likely to end up in prison than their peers who stay with family is only two.
- Another is the fact that Nationwide, the population of Federal and State prisons, is over 80% graduates of the foster system is probably the most damning.
Simply doing everything possible to keep kids with family, even if it is extended family, is the least costly and most responsible option for society as a whole.
A bill was introduced in the 2011 legislative session (H3225) and was re-introduced in 2012 (H4717). Bill 4714 unanimously passed the House of Representatives in April of last year, but died in the Senate Judiciary committee. I was told it was because there was not enough time to get it scheduled for hearings and then to the Senate floor.
The bill that was introduced in the state House on January 30, 2013 (H3464) gives us an opportunity to carry this issue to the finish line. Also on February 12, 2013, Sen. Katrina Shealey introduced companion legislation in the Senate (S371) which will greatly speed up the process of getting it to Gov.Haley for her signature.
I originated the idea for this legislation and worked closely with Rep. Rita Allison, who is the primary sponsor, in drafting the bill. I am proud that I was blessed enough to be involved with all this and was grateful that Rep Allison has championed the legislation from the beginning.
In meeting with legislators, this legislation and the concept of giving grandparents more rights and opportunities to care for their grandchildren has good support in both the House and Senate this year, and Governor Haley has said she will sign it if it gets to her desk. Even DSS supports it. It’s a common sense solution that puts families first.
With regards to budget impacts, the current legislation will be no cost because all it really does is allow grandparents to become a party to the case which would have been brought already, but only where there is a chance of termination of parental rights. If the grandparents are actually given custody, it actually costs the state less, because the foster system pays foster families much more money than the amount spent with “relative placement” – a formula which is determined by Federal funding.
A lot of people talk about putting families first, but they don’t always live up to their words. This legislation allows legislators to truly put families first in South Carolina and look out for children in need while providing positive and nurturing outcomes which will benefit our state as a whole. The General Assembly came close to passing this legislation last year. This year, we’re asking them to carry this to the finish line.