The distinctive features of foster care are that it is care in a family, it is noninstitutional substitute care, and it is for a planned period, either temporary or extended. Under this scheme children may be placed in foster care either by voluntary placement or by court order. Most placements are voluntary, occurring when family crisis makes it impossible for natural parents to provide a stable home life. Under voluntary placements, a child must be returned within 20 days of notice from the parent absent a written agreement providing for a specified date.
Foster parents provide care under a contractual arrangement with the agency, and are compensated for their services. The agency generally may remove the child on request, and the foster parent may cancel the agreement at will. The law transfers care and custody to the agency, but most functions ordinarily associated with legal custody are the responsibility of the foster parent. The foster parent does not have the full authority of a legal custodian, and the natural parent’s placement of the child with the agency does not surrender legal guardianship. The parent retains the authority to act in certain circumstances, and the natural parent has the obligation to visit the foster child and plan for his future. Children may also enter foster care by court order under similar rules as voluntary placement, except the parent is not entitled to return of the child on demand.
The provisions at issue come into play when the agency determines to remove the foster child from the foster home, either because it is in the child’s best interests to transfer him to another foster home or to return the child to his natural parents. The agency is required to notify the foster parents in writing 10 days in advance of removal. If they object, they may request a conference, and the foster parent may appear with counsel. The foster parent will be advised of the reasons for removal, and afforded an opportunity to submit reasons why the child should not be removed. The proposed removal is stayed pending outcome of the conference. If the child is removed, the foster parent may appeal to the Department of Social Services, however, removal is not automatically stayed pending this review. Regulations applicable to New York City provide even greater procedural safeguards, in the form of a preremoval trial.
From the standpoint of natural parents, foster care has been condemned as class-based intrusion into the family life of the poor. It is claimed that many voluntary placements are actually coerced by threat of neglect proceedings. Foster parents as well as natural parents also complain that children often stay in temporary foster care for much linger than contemplated by the theory of the system. It is clear that children often develop deep emotional ties with their foster parents, yet such ties do not seem to be regarded as obstacles to transfer of the child from one foster placement to another.
The inquiry into whether the District Court correctly held that the present procedures preceding the removal from a foster home of children resident there a year or more are constitutionally inadequate begins with the question of if appellees have asserted interests within the Fourteen Amendment’s protection of liberty. Appellees contend that when a child has lived in a foster home for a year or more, a psychological tie is created which constitutes the foster family the true psychological family of the child. They argue this creates a liberty interest in the survival as a family. Appointed counsel for the children disagrees, stating that the foster parents have no such liberty interest independent of the interests of the foster children. The intervening natural parents also oppose the foster parents, arguing that recognition of the procedural right claimed would undercut both the substantive family law of New York and their constitutionally protected right of family privacy.
There is a private realm of family life which the state cannot enter. However, the usual understanding of family implies biological relationships, which is not present in the case of the usual foster family. A biological relationship is not the exclusive determination, and a loving and interdependent relationship between an adult and a child in his care may exist even in the absence of a blood relationship. For this reason this Court cannot dismiss the foster family as a mere collection of unrelated individuals.
There are also important distinctions between the natural and foster family. A foster family has its source in state law and contractual arrangements. Whatever emotional ties may develop have their origins in the arrangement in which the State has been a partner from the outset. Additionally, in this case it is virtually unavoidable to afford procedural protection to a liberty interest of one person without derogating the substantive liberty interest of another. Nonetheless, it is unnecessary to resolve the question of if appellees have a protected liberty interest, because narrower grounds exist to support this Court’s reversal.
The District Court erred in holding that the preremoval procedures presently employed by the State are constitutionally defective. Considering the private interest affected; the risk of an erroneous deprivation of such interest by the procedures; and, the government’s interest, requires the conclusion that those procedures satisfy constitutional standards.
Turning first to the New York City procedures, the court found the procedures inadequate on four grounds, none of which this Court finds persuasive. First, the court found the independent review insufficient because it was available only upon request of the foster parents. But any liberty interest is a right of family privacy, and it follows that the Court should expect that the foster parents will request the hearing if they wish to continue the relationship to preserve the stability of the family. Second, the court faulted the procedure because the participation is limited to the foster parents and agency, not making the natural parents or the child parties. When the transfer sought is from one foster home to another, any interest needed protected is in the foster family, not the natural family. Furthermore, nothing in the procedure prevents consultation of the child’s wishes. Third, the court faulted the procedure for not extending to the removal of a child from foster care
to be returned to his natural parents. However, any liberty interest existing in the foster family is significantly weaker in the case of removals preceding return to the natural parent. Finally, the court pointed out that the New York City procedure coincided with the informal conference and postremoval hearings provided by state law. The State does not violate the Due Process Clause by providing alternate or additional procedures.
Outside New York City, foster parents are also provided with the preremoval judicial hearing. The district court found three defects in this judicial process. First, the proceeding is available only to foster children in care for 18 months or more. There is no need to assume that the assumed emotional attachments liberty interest would ripen at less than 18 months. The other two findings were addressed in the preceding analysis and were found to be meritless.