September 24, 2020
By Sarah Wasch, MSW, Field Center Program Manager
September is National Kinship Care Month, and a fitting time to reflect on the importance of family connection. Kinship care is the care of children by grandparents and other relatives when their own parents are unable to care for them, and can refer to numerous caregiving situations, including informal, private arrangements between parents and relative caregivers, giving guardianship to relative caregivers without child welfare system involvement, or providing formal kinship care through the local child welfare agency .
Nearly half of children in formal out-of-home placement are in non-relative foster family homes, or general foster care, while approximately 30% reside in a kinship home . Although children in traditional foster care are more likely to achieve legal permanence, youth in out-of-home care fare better overall in a kinship placement. Attachment and evolutionary theory posit that children are often treated better by kin than non-relative caregivers, and that the existing child-caregiver relationship and implied positive attachment makes kinship placements more stable. Kids in kinship care have fewer behavioral problems, mental health diagnoses, and lower rates of re-abuse while in care .
The ABA Center on Children and the Law identifies seven significant benefits of kinship care. Living with relatives instead of strangers: 1.) Minimizes trauma; 2.) Improves children’s well-being; 3.) Increases permanency; 4.) Improves behavioral and mental health outcomes; 5.) Promotes sibling ties; 6.) Provides a bridge for older youth; and 7.) Preserves cultural identity and community connections .
There are a lot of misconceptions about the family relationships held by children who enter the foster care system. Often, youth in foster care have supportive and meaningful existing relationships with non-parental adults who for myriad reasons do not become their formal foster parents. In some cases, the adult in question does not want to or is unable to become a kinship caregiver; perhaps they have health issues, reside in an elder care facility, or otherwise feel unable to provide adequate parenting to a child.
In other cases, an adult with a prior relationship with a child entering foster care seeks to become a kinship caregiver but is prevented from doing so, for reasons ranging from prior criminal history, the small size of a residence, or the agency or court’s determination that the relationship is not significant enough. If a relative lives out of state, the challenges to secure a kinship placement are exacerbated, and the red tape may result in a months-long delay of allowing kinship care to occur.
A recent Field Center research study sought to identify the challenges experienced by older youth in and recently aged out of foster care during the COVID-19 crisis. Though not the focus of the research, it became abundantly clear from the survey responses that relationships with family members, including parents and other relatives, remain extremely important to young people, and a disruption to that connection can cause great stress. Whether or not a child in out-of-home placement is able to live with a caretaker that they have a familial relationship with, we must to do more to support the existence of these relationships and reinforce an entire network of adult relationships for children.
Defying a common fallacy that youth in foster care have no families, or that the biological families of youth in foster care are unengaged and unsupportive, survey respondents used the free response questions to note how important their existing relationships with family are, especially during COVID-19. Participants wrote:
“I don’t get to see my family as much as I did.”
“I haven’t been able to see my grandparents because I’m worried I could get them sick.”
“I cannot visit friends, family or my significant other.”
In response to a question about their living situation, a few survey respondents indicated that they are living with non-parental adults who are not or were not ever their formal foster parents, raising the question of if any of the adults referenced by the youth could have acted as caretakers:
“Since I had to leave my college campus I have been sleeping on a family friend’s sofa in [another state].”
“Because of the circumstances, I decided to move with my old non-foster parents. They did not adopt me, but they help me in difficult times such as this.”
“I was homeless, but I was rescued by a family who took me in. They are not my foster care family but they act as a family to me.”
“I’m living with my boyfriend and his parents.”
Other survey respondents shared that even though they have since aged out of foster care, they have returned to reside with family members, either in general or in response to COVID-19:
“I stay with my family; I’m not in a foster care family.”
“I’m staying with my parents until the pandemic is over, while still paying for my apartment.”
Finally, COVID-19 has had an immensely negative impact on young people who feel separated from their loved ones.
“I get very depressed not being able to visit my siblings who are in a separate foster home and I worry about them and their safety ALL day.”
“I’ve been very depressed and anxious to talk to some of my friends and family during all of this.”
(The full report is available on our website here.)
National Kinship Month is the perfect time to remind ourselves and the entire child welfare community that we owe it to youth in foster care to keep their existing relationships strong and to assist them in seeking increased relationships with family. Programs like Family Finding can help locate and engage relatives of children currently in care, and interventions like Caring Adults ‘R’ Everywhere (C.A.R.E.) can work to increase and enhance young people’s existing social support networks. With all of the available information on the positive impact of kinship care, let’s do all that we can to promote formal and informal kinship caregiving for our vulnerable children.