WASHINGTON – Advocates say a law that was supposed to make it easier for grandparents to enroll their grandkids in local schools may be tripped up by “excessively bureaucratic” paperwork that school systems have imposed.
School bureaucrats concede that they ask for more documentation than the state law requires, in an effort to prevent “school shopping” between districts, but they know of no grandparent who has been turned away as a result.
The law that took effect July 1 lets “kinship caregivers” — such as a grandparent caring for a grandchild — enroll the child in the caregiver’s school instead of the absent parent’s school.
Before the law, caregivers could only enroll a child locally if they had applied for legal guardianship or if the parent showed up to verify that he or she was unable to care for their child — hurdles that often caused children to miss days, even months, of school.
But advocacy groups said that as school systems have implemented the law, they have erected almost as many hurdles as before.
“The whole point of the law was to make it easier for grandparents,” said Mary Bissell, an attorney for the Children’s Defense Fund. “Excessively bureaucratic documentation puts an undue burden on the grandparent caregiver.”
The state law requires that kinship caregivers first file an affidavit citing at least one of six reasons that the natural parent or guardian cannot care for the child: abandonment, drug addition, serious illness, active military duty, incarceration or death. It does not require documentation, but says it may be required by local school systems.
Advocacy groups said that some school districts have taken that next step, requiring documentation that could range from a death certificate, to military orders to a doctor’s note stating that the parent is seriously ill or in a drug rehabilitation facility.
“It’s just unrealistic to expect that from someone who has a drug addiction, you’re going to get a signed statement,” said Bissell.
But school officials say the extra documentation is a guard against school shopping, which occurs when parents from one district try to sneak their child into a “better” school district.
“There are folks out there who do try to circumvent the school district,” said Baltimore County schools spokesman Charles Herndon, whose district requires documentation for kinship care. “We have a responsibility to protect the county and the school system.”
Additionally, advocates worry that some of the documentation requests, such as medical records, may be impossible for a kinship caregiver to obtain. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, for example, prohibits a health care provider from releasing medical records to anyone other than the patient without authorization. But that authorization is hard to come by if a parent is “unavailable.”
“It (HIPPA) may provide an issue,” said Howard County schools program coordinator Pamela Blackwell. But, she added, the state allows schools some “wiggle room” in the types of documentation they can accept.
“Our main interest is getting kids in school and removing barriers,” Blackwell said. “We get creative with what they can bring in.”
“The law does not address what constitutes documentation,” said Thurman Doolittle, a pupil personnel specialist with the Maryland Department of Education. He said the state has made documentation suggestions to the school districts, “but there’s nothing preventing them from changing them.”
The law also allows for county superintendents to investigate questionable applications, heavily fine violators and withdraw a child from school if an applicant is found guilty of fraud.
But Ellen Willinghan, program coordinator for the group Grandparents as Parents, said the kinship caregiver’s signed affidavit should be enough for school officials.
“If it’s properly notarized and enforced, (that) should be enough,” Willinghan said. “If the school district has questions later, then they should require the documentation then,” she said.
“There needs to be a balance between ensuring that there’s no fraud committed to get a kid into a better school, but without the excessive bureaucratic requirements that require a grandparent to document a parent’s drug abuse problem,” she said.
Schools are not required to report the number, nature and residency of kinship care applicants until next year. But Herndon said that Baltimore County has approved 134 of the 149 kinship care requests it has received this fall, with four cases denied and 11 still pending.
State and local officials are scheduled to meet Friday to discuss the new law, but some local officials said kinship caregivers have been generally pleased.
“When they don’t know the law and we tell them the law, they are happy just to know there’s a system in place,” Blackwell said.