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July 01, 2017

Creating a Kin-First Culture

Jennifer Miller

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

When children can’t live safely with their parents and must enter foster care, child welfare policy prioritizes placement with relatives or close family friends, also known as kinship foster care. Research confirms that children do best in kinship foster care and that family connections are critical to healthy child development and a sense of belonging.1 Kinship care also helps to preserve children’s cultural identity and relationship to their community.

Child welfare systems across the country are redoubling their efforts to identify and engage kin as foster parents. These efforts are influenced by several factors:

  • Research repeatedly shows placing a child within their own family reduces the trauma of removal from a child’s home, is less likely to result in placement disruptions, and enhances prospects for finding a permanent family if the child cannot return home.2

  • There is growing national consensus that institutional care does not benefit children except in time-limited therapeutic settings to meet specific treatment needs.

  • A shortage of foster parents exists in most communities.

Despite the strong value of kinship foster care, many child welfare systems face barriers to finding, approving and supporting kinship families and seek strategies to create a culture that truly values kin families. This article summarizes seven steps to create a kin-first culture—one in which child welfare stakeholders consistently promote kinship placement, help children in foster care maintain connections with their families, and tailor services and supports to the needs of kinship foster families. Lawyers and judges can play a meaningful role in creating a kin-first culture by promoting each of the steps in their daily practice, supporting agency leaders and staff striving to create kin-first cultures, and reflecting on ways they can help advance the seven steps. These seven steps are adapted from a consensus document by the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Generations United, and ChildFocus, drawing on the experiences of several jurisdictions on the forefront of creating child welfare cultures that truly value kin.

Step 1: Lead with a kin-first philosophy.

Leadership is key to creating a kin-first culture. Child welfare leaders, including judges and attorneys, can promote the belief that children belong with family. By using their position and authority, leaders can send a message that placement with kin should always be the first priority.

* In Connecticut, the Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families issued an all staff memo at the beginning of her tenure laying out her expectations that all children be placed with kin whenever possible, and that placement in non-kin care should be the exception. The Commissioner also set a target for all regions to aspire to: 40% of overall placements with kin.

To fully live out a kin-first philosophy, leaders must align their resources, staffing, tools and training to reflect the underlying values of a kin-first culture. For judges and attorneys, this means consistently asking about and reinforcing the importance of family connections when cases are heard in court and in representation of children and parents. At the agency level, a kin-first philosophy can be supported by staffing teams to identify kinship families when children first enter care, assess kin families for their capacity to provide safe and nurturing care for children, and support kinship families who step in, often with no preparation for their caregiving role. It also means fully advocating for resources to support kin caregivers through training, tailored and accessible services, case management, and more.

Finally, leaders can demand that everyone is held accountable for living out the kin-first philosophy. This requires judges to hold agencies accountable for searching for and engaging kin, and for agencies to understand the roadblocks to kinship placements. It also means holding all levels of staff accountable for playing their part in the kin-first culture.

Step 2: Develop written policies and protocols that reflect equity for children living with kin and recognize their unique circumstances.

Children in kinship foster care deserve the same attention as children placed with non-kin. Yet too often, child welfare policy and protocol is developed with non-kin foster families in mind and fails to recognize the unique experiences of kin families. Foster families who are not related to the child make a conscious decision to become foster parents and prepare for having children placed in their homes. Kin families, on the other hand, often step in with little preparation before having the child placed in their home and face a different emotional connection to the situation given their relationship to the child.

Child welfare systems must have a unique perspective when working with kin families and adopt policies that reflect an understanding of the different ways kin and non-kin become involved in the process. Kin-first systems take time to review their policies and practices to ensure they clearly outline how relative caregivers will be notified and engaged when children first enter care, the issues caseworkers should be attuned to in assessing kin families, and how all stakeholders, including the legal community, can advocate for the full range of support kin families need to meet the children’s needs.
While the experiences of kin families may differ from those of non-kin, the supports they need to care for children who have experienced trauma are the same. This means kin families should receive the same financial supports and services to support the children as all other foster families. Kin families may need extra support since many step in without warning and may have immediate needs, such as filling out required paperwork, navigating the licensing process, obtaining car seats and cribs, etc.

Policies that are unique for kin first-systems include:

  • Diligent search – steps to identify, notify, and engage kin throughout the child welfare continuum.

  • Emergency placement protocols – steps to make the first placement a kin placement when children face immediate removal from parents.

  • Licensing policies – recognizing that some nonsafety licensing standards for foster parents may need to be more flexible for kinship families.

  • Training – providing initial and ongoing education for kin that recognizes their existing connection to the child and family.

  • Permanency options – recognizing that legal options for kin may differ than those for non-kin.

  • Full disclosure – ensuring kin families understand the full range of legal options available to them.

  • Financial supports – ensuring kin families have the same financial supports as other foster families, including permanency supports.

*Several states have aligned their policies with their kinship philosophy as part of broader efforts to increase the percentage of children first placed with kin. The District of Columbia, Tennessee, and Westmoreland County, PA all revised policies to reflect a kin-first philosophy. These efforts ensure staff are clear on the expectations for their contributions to the kin-first culture and policies guide decisions when working with kinship families. These policies also help ensure the philosophy of kinship care doesn’t compromise the overall focus on safety for all children and youth in foster care.

3. Identify and engage kin for children at every step.

Kin-first states begin identifying a child’s extended family network from the moment the child comes to the attention of the child welfare system. When agencies first begin working with families, kin can help prevent removing the child from his or her family by playing a supportive role with parents in crisis. By identifying and engaging supportive family networks early in a family’s involvement with the child welfare system, child welfare stakeholders can better assess viable placement options if removal becomes necessary later.

*Pennsylvania state law requires family finding, a strategy to locate and engage kin for children at risk of or already in foster care. Under Pennsylvania law, the county must begin family finding in every case at the time of referral to the child welfare agency, and the court must inquire at each hearing whether the agency has complied with family-finding requirements.

Technology as a tool to help child welfare agencies locate kin is promising, particularly for older youth who have been in foster care for a long time and may lack strong family connections. Yet strategies to locate and engage family connections should always begin by engaging parents and children to identify their own family networks. Parents may hesitate initially to name family members who can step in, but may be more supportive over time when they understand the alternative is having the child live with a stranger.

Traditionally, child welfare systems have focused on family networks on the maternal side, but there is strong consensus in the field about the importance of fully engaging fathers and paternal relatives so children have every opportunity to connect to both sides of their family tree. Some child welfare agencies find using genograms with family members can help identify maternal and paternal family connections.

While placement with kin is a high priority, not all kin are in a position to have children placed in their home. They can, however, support children wherever they are placed by providing transportation to visitation, visiting with the children, and helping parents make progress on their treatment plans. Kin can also stay connected to children while in residential treatment programs and support families once children return home.

*Agencies that routinely hold family team meetings and encourage parents to bring family and community supports create environments that allow for stronger engagement of kin connections. In Hawaii, Epic O’Hana is a nonprofit organization that uses O’Hana meetings to help children stay safe and connected to family. O’Hana meetings are facilitated by agency staff and grounded in the philosophy about the importance of family connections for children involved in the child welfare system.

Step 4: Create a sense of urgency for making the first placement a kin placement

Research shows kinship foster care is more stable than non-kin care and can help prevent disruptions that harm a child’s well-being.3 Kin-first systems invest necessary resources into making the child’s first placement a kin placement whenever possible. First placement with kin is key to reducing the trauma of being placed with someone the child doesn’t know, and it also helps ensure non-kin foster parents are available for children who don’t have viable extended family options for placement.
Unfortunately, child welfare systems4 are not always structured in a way that makes first placement with kin possible. Strategies that help create this sense of urgency include:

  • Kinship firewall – requiring a supervisor, program manager, or director to approve all non-kin placements. Firewalls help ensure caseworkers do not bypass considering family connections and notifying and engaging all known family members before placing children outside their family network. A firewall makes it harder, not easier, to place with non-kin foster parents. Judges and attorneys can also ask whether family connections have been fully explored when presented with children and youth in non-kin placements.

*Tennessee developed a Kinship Exception Request form that case managers must complete and submit for approval before making a non-kin placement. Several regions have kinship coordinators responsible for ensuring all efforts are made to locate kin and support caseworkers in their efforts to engage and assess prospective kin foster parents.

  • Teamwork across units – in many jurisdictions, child protective workers, who are responsible for investigating reports of abuse and neglect and, when necessary, removing children from their parents, must also complete all steps to identify and assess kinship options. Emergency placement with kin is labor-intensive, and child protection staff need support from others in the child welfare agency who can search for family connections, complete criminal and child protection background checks, help child protection workers make quality decisions about placement, make an initial visit to the family to assess for safety and suitability, and more.

  • Initial home checks – initial checks of the kinship home can be conducted by staff who have strong skills engaging and assessing kinship families for safety, understand licensing requirements, and can inform kinship families of their options and the steps moving forward. Too often, child protection staff are overwhelmed with the investigation and removal and may not have the time or background to do the initial engagement with kin.

  • Family team meetings – family team meetings held before a removal occurs are ideal times to bring in extended family networks who can help parents develop a plan for safe care for a child at imminent risk of removal. Those same family members may be viable placement options if a plan for keeping the child at home can’t be developed.

Removing barriers to timely background checks – many jurisdictions experience serious lag times getting the results of background checks to determine suitability of a kinship placement. Local leaders should work with law enforcement to remove barriers to timely access to criminal background checks and ensure results of child protection background checks are available to inform placement decisions. Delays in receiving fingerprinting results can also hamper placement decisions. Several agencies have purchased Live Scan technology to make fingerprinting easier and faster for prospective foster parents.

5. Make Licensing a Priority

Most state licensing standards for foster parents were developed years ago, before the child welfare field prioritized kinship care as the best option for children in foster care. As a result, they were created to ensure safety for children living with someone they did not know, making many licensing standards irrelevant for children living with a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or close family friend. Most licensing standards have also become outdated in general and challenging for the average foster parent to meet. A review of state licensing standards by Generations United and the ABA Center on Children and the Law found many foster parent licensing standards, such as income requirements, age limitations, and space considerations discriminate against many of the families who are most likely to step forward to care for children in custody, including kinship caregivers.

The barriers to licensing kin as foster parents has resulted in preventing many kinship families caring for children from becoming licensed. Families that haven’t been licensed are not eligible for foster parent subsidies and lack some protections that licensed families enjoy. It also presents a risk to the state if something happens to the child and the state cannot prove it has done everything to verify the kin foster parent has the capacity to care for the child.

States can overcome many licensing barriers by establishing clear guidelines for requesting and granting waivers for nonsafety licensing standards. Waivers are allowable under federal law and can be granted when waiving the standard does not compromise safety. Examples include training requirements, space requirements, and requirements for the number of children sleeping in a room.

Caseworkers can also educate kin on the option to become licensed and the benefits to doing so. Judges can also probe further when kinship families are not licensed and promote flexibility in the licensing process when safety is not a factor.

*A District of Columbia policy called “Temporary Licensing of Foster Home for Kin” includes a “List of Potentially Waivable Requirements.” Caseworkers must complete a Request for Waiver of Licensing Requirements for Temporary Licensing in DC explaining why the waiver will not impact safety for the child. Connecticut also requires a placement wavier request form for every waiver granted to kin and non-kin foster parents. The form provides guidance on which entities must approve the waiver before it can be granted, with criminal and child protection background waivers requiring a higher level of approval than other types of waivers.

When licensing kinship caregivers as foster parents, caseworkers should examine the suitability of each caregiver in relation to the individual child, not just whether the caregiver can be licensed according to state or tribal licensing standards. Ensuring kin caregivers have the capacity to provide safe, nurturing care to a specific child in custody is not always consistent with what is needed to pass the licensing process, especially when the caregiver already knows the child.

6. Support permanent families for children.

The ultimate goal for children in foster care is to safely return home to their parents. Kin should receive encouragement to support the goal of a safe return home, but be prepared to consider providing a permanent home if reunification isn’t possible. Kin-first child welfare systems take the time to understand the unique relationships and dynamics of each family and support problem solving centered on the best possible decision about the most appropriate permanent families for children.

Strategies that promote permanency for children in kinship include:

  • Ensuring a full range of permanency options, including reunification, subsidized adoption, subsidized guardianship, and tribal customary adoption. Guardianship and tribal customary adoption are options that are important to kin families that do not want to terminate parental rights, which is required for adoption.

  • When children cannot return home, clearly explaining the options for legal permanence and helping families choose the option that works best for them.

  • Providing post-reunification, adoption, and guardianship services to ensure families have help to prevent disruptions as children and youth continue to deal with the trauma associated with the initial removal from their home and other childhood traumas.

Several states use a chart of permanency options to help families understand the legal options available and what each option means from a financial and legal perspective. These charts help ensure caseworkers are providing accurate information about subsidies, medical assistance, access to government benefits and community supports, the legal process for establishing permanency, and the nature of the legal relationship between the children and their kin. Permanency charts also help child welfare systems clearly delineate for families the assistance available for relatives with a blood relationship as compared to those not related by blood, marriage or, adoption. Judges and attorneys also play a central role educating family members about the permanency options available and what they mean for the entire kinship triad.

7. Create a Strong Community Network to Support Kin Families

Community-based organizations, other public systems, and the legal community are often a child welfare agency’s best allies in achieving positive outcomes for children in kinship care. Community partnerships can ensure kin access tailored services and supports they need for the child, and can promote culturally responsive services that honor each family’s unique ethnic and cultural heritage. It is often easier for families to build trust with organizations in the community than with public child welfare agencies that have a long history of mistrust.

*A Second Chance, Inc. is a licensed foster care agency that exclusively serves kinship foster parents caring for children in Allegheny County, PA’s foster care system. A Second Chance licenses families within 60 days of placement, conducts specialized kinship training, and provides permanency services to kinship caregivers, parents, and children.

Legal systems are also critical, and courts, attorneys, and court-appointed special advocates (CASAs) can reinforce the importance of kinship placement and family connections for children in foster care. Judges can routinely ask caseworkers what steps they have taken to identify extended family networks and ask older youth if there are family connections that are important to them. Attorneys and CASAs can also advocate for more consistent engagement of kin throughout a child’s involvement with the child welfare system.

Strong community networks also engage other public systems to build awareness about the needs of children in kinship care. Schools, early childhood, economic security, housing and aging services are just some public systems that should be aware of the role of kinship foster parents and help them access services and supports for the children.

*Washington State has a strong infrastructure of support for kinship families at the state and local levels. A legislatively mandated kinship care oversight committee coordinates resources across departments, while a kinship workgroup of public agency staff works to remove barriers to supporting kin. The state’s navigator program also helps caregivers navigate services and supports at the local level.

Creating a kin-first culture doesn’t happen overnight. It requires constant attention, oversight, and refinement to ensure all staff honor and value family connection for children in foster care and live that value in their engagement with families every day. Kin-first systems must also balance the importance of helping children stay connected to kin with the unfortunate reality that not all kin connections are appropriate placements, and that first and foremost, the mission of the child welfare agency is ensuring child safety. The child welfare field has gradually come to understand that even when children can’t live with their extended families, it is critical to their well-being that they remain connected and receive support to navigate and maintain family relationships.

Jennifer Miller, MSW is founding partner of ChildFocus, Inc. a national child welfare consulting firm specializing in policy advocacy, organizational development, strategic planning, and communications. ChildFocus partners Jennifer Miller and Mary Bissell have a special passion for the issue of kinship care and have provided technical assistance and consultation to numerous public agencies, providers, and foundations on ways to strengthen their approach to kinship care. Jennifer previously worked at Cornerstone Consulting Group, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the American Public Human Services Association on issues impacting vulnerable children and families.

Building a Kin-First Courtroom

Role of the Court

Court oversight is critical to achieving best practices and improving permanency outcomes. Judges can ask the following questions to create an expectation for a kin-first culture:

  • What is preventing a kinship placement now?
  • What reasonable efforts were made to place siblings together?
  • Ask the agency at each and every hearing: What efforts has the agency made to identify and locate kin? What efforts have been made to engage kin beyond a notice letter so that they may be part of a child’s life?
  • Ask the parents and child(ren) at first and all subsequent hearings to give the court information about their important family connections.
  • Has the agency explained all possible placement options to kin (i.e., guardianship, adoption, foster care, etc.)?
  • Order a visitation plan not only for parents, but for siblings and relatives so children can maintain family connections.
  • Ask whether the Indian Child Welfare Act applies and ensure the agency makes efforts to identify appropriate placements.

Judicial Licensing Considerations

Judges can also ask questions about licensing relative caregivers and associated supports and services to care for children in their care.

  • Does your state require relatives to be licensed foster parents to care for children in state custody?
  • Are licensing waivers used in your jurisdiction?
  • If relatives are not licensed, the court should ask why. Is it by the relative’s choice?
  • Do the relatives fully understand all of their placement options? Is there an environmental barrier that can easily be fixed or waived (i.e., family needs a new bed or fire extinguisher, etc.)?
  • Do kin have the services and supports needed to meet the unique needs of the children placed in their home?
  • Ultimately, it is up to the agency to determine whether or not a relative can be licensed. The court cannot order a home to be licensed, but can inquire and provide oversight as needed.

1. ChildFocus. Children in Kinship Care Experience Improved Placement Stability, Higher Levels of Permanency, and Decreased Behavioral Problems. 2. Ibid.
3. Ibid.
4. Beltran, Ana and Heidi Redlich-Epstein. Improving Foster Care Licensing Standard around the United States: Using Research Findings to Effect Change, March 2012.