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I love my nephew and would do anything for him. I also know what he needs better than anyone else. The child welfare agency should treat me with respect instead of like a babysitter because I want what’s best for him.—Kinship Foster Parent, Chicago
Treating Kinship Foster Families as True Partners
Across the country, state child welfare agencies increasingly rely on grandparents, relatives, and close family friends to become foster families to abused and neglected children. The most recent data show that more than one in four children involved in the child welfare system – approximately 104,000 children – are in foster care placements with relatives. While these kinship foster families step up every day to provide critical love and care for the children who need them, they face a range of challenges as foster parents and family members.
A New Movement to Transform Foster Parenting
Across the continuum of foster family supports, from family finding and recruiting to licensing and training, kinship foster families are demanding to be treated as full partners by child welfare agency leaders and caseworkers in making decisions about their children’s care and well-being. To address the systemic changes that foster families need to help children thrive, the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently launched a national campaign with other national stakeholders to transform foster parenting by changing the way systems and communities partner with foster parents to help children stay safe, heal, and thrive in their own families and communities.
This national effort will help achieve three goals kinship and other foster families have identified as most important to them:
- Ensuring quality caregiving for children;
- Forging strong relationships between agencies and foster families; and
- Finding and keeping more amazing caregivers.
What Kinship Foster Families Need to Help Children Thrive
To accomplish these goals, reforms must be grounded first and foremost in what children need. Based on this principle, robust kinship foster parent-agency partnerships are already coming alive in many communities. These partnerships will require a fundamental shift in the culture of child welfare agencies to elevate the role of foster parents. This is critical for kinship care families, who have traditionally been denied the same financial and other related supports as their nonrelative counterparts.
Based on interviews the Casey Foundation conducted over six months in 2016, the following considerations were identified by kinship foster families as fundamental to feeling supported by child welfare systems and providing the best possible care.
Effective Family Finding and Early Engagement
Despite progress, many child welfare systems still struggle to identify and inform relatives that a child needs care, particularly when the child first enters care. To minimize the trauma and disruption of a child’s removal, child welfare systems must have in place an effective strategy to identify, communicate with, and engage relatives early in the process. One jurisdiction that does this well is Pennsylvania, which has a policy to engage kin early, even at the preventive stage with parent permission.
Full Disclosure of Multiple Caregiving Options
Unlike nonrelated foster families who have the opportunity to reflect upon and prepare for their caregiving roles, relatives often have short notice that a child needs a home and little time to weigh their legal and financial options. Child welfare agencies must fully and clearly inform relatives of the pros and cons of different choices to allow families to make the best possible decisions.
Kin-focused Foster Family Training Process
Many kinship caregivers who decide to become licensed foster care providers report that the required training process is geared towards nonrelatives. These trainings often overlook kinship-specific strategies, such as managing contentious relationships with family members or helping a child understand the relative’s changing role as a parent figure. In addition to considering trainings designed only for kin, caregivers suggest that required trainings must, at minimum, effectively address their special circumstances.
Licensing Requirements that Make Sense for Kinship Families
In many states, current licensing requirements, such as those addressing square footage and unnecessary educational requirements (e.g., requiring a high school diploma), are aimed almost exclusively at nonrelative foster care placements. State child welfare agencies must carefully review and amend their current standards to eliminate unnecessary barriers that keep quality and caring relatives from becoming licensed foster families.
Developing a Strong Support Network
As is true for all foster parents, kinship foster families make it clear that to adequately care for their children, they need a complete range of supports, including dedicated support staff, peer support from other kinship families, grief and loss counseling, help in making decisions about adoption and guardianship, and respite care.
Ensuring Adequate Financial and Other Resources to Meet Children’s Needs
Traditionally, relative caregivers have not received the same financial and other supports as their nonrelated foster family peers. Kin foster parents deserve access to equitable financial support, basic services (such as mental health counseling), funding for unexpected expenses, information about tax benefits and access to liability insurance, among other resources and help.
Engaging Kinship Foster Parents as Full Agency Partners
As daily decision makers for the children in their care, kinship foster parents should be treated as the child welfare agency’s most valued frontline practitioners. Agencies must expand their efforts to include relatives in critical decisions by helping ensure their voices are heard in the children’s court proceedings, engaging foster families in shaping agency policies and making sure kinship foster family needs are reflected in all aspects of agency leadership and funding decisions.
Improving the Recruitment and Retention of Kinship Foster Families
Once relatives become licensed foster families, they still need wraparound services to support and sustain them over the long-term. Successful approaches include providing opportunities for caregivers to mentor other kinship families and acknowledging and celebrating foster family roles with appreciation events.
To support kinship foster families, child welfare agencies must follow the lead of several emerging efforts across the country to engage caregivers as full partners in a child’s well-being and future success. One example is the SOS Project (Securing our Stability) in Adams County, PA. This initiative connects a clinician to every foster family who conducts assessments with the child and the foster family to identify challenges and stressors, and prevent disruptions in the placement by fully engaging the foster parent as a partner. Interventions are designed specifically around the challenges identified and are provided in a manner to stabilize foster placements by building adult capacity, thus improving child well-being.
While there is no universal recipe for success, the Casey Foundation hopes the key ingredients identified by kin families will help agencies and communities find the best possible path forward to support children and their families.
Parts of this article were excerpted from A Movement to Transform Foster Parenting (The Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2016).
Mary Bissell, JD, is a lawyer and partner at ChildFocus, a national child and family policy consulting firm. She is also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.