PITTSBURGH – The ACLU of Pennsylvania and K&L Gates LLP have filed a federal lawsuit against the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (OCYF) for denying foster care payments to a Leechburg woman who has been raising her three grandnieces and a grandnephew for the past two years. Federal and state law requires county child welfare agencies to treat foster parents who are relatives of abused and neglected children the same way they treat other foster families.

“This country’s social safety net for abused and neglected children requires child welfare agencies to steer the children to relatives, when possible, and to provide the same level of financial and other support as they do to strangers who become foster parents. Finding kind-hearted family members doesn’t relieve child-welfare agencies of their obligations to provide support,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

Since early 2012, Tracy Schaeffer has had full responsibility for providing for the four children, all under the age of 13, including food, clothing, doctor’s appointments, and school supplies. Schaeffer, who took the children in after their drug-addicted parents could no longer care for them, has also spent a substantial amount on legal fees trying to obtain legal custody of them.

Despite Schaeffer’s repeated pleas to Allegheny County for assistance, OCYF employees refused to provide legal, financial or any other support to Schaeffer and the children. The agency also failed to inform her that she was eligible to become a certified foster parent and receive financial assistance to care for the children, despite state and federal law requiring it to do so.

 “OCYF washed their hands of us the moment they said, ‘you’re family, can't you help out?’,” said Schaeffer.  “I have done everything in my power to restore normalcy to these beautiful children’s lives, but providing for four young children isn’t cheap, and I have had to go into debt to do it.”  

According to the lawsuit, when OCYF directors were confronted with the agency’s treatment of Schaeffer they saw nothing wrong, suggesting that the agency may have  a pattern and practice of denying foster care payments to caregivers who are related to the children they take in.   The ACLU-PA is interested in hearing from other kinship caregivers in Allegheny County who have been denied financial support to care for abused or neglected children to whom they are related.

”OCYF has a legal obligation to provide financial assistance and support to kinship caregivers.  Ms. Schaeffer has done a wonderful thing by taking in these children and providing them with a stable and loving home.  Unfortunately, she has done it without getting the guidance and support from OCYF she was entitled to receive,” said Andy Stanton, a partner with the law firm K&L Gates LLP.

Schaeffer is represented by Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU-PA, and volunteer counsel Andy Stanton and Ngofeen Mputubwele of K&L Gates LLP.

More information about the case, including a copy of the complaint, is available at: cases/schaeffer-v-allegheny-county