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Kinship care is the future of the child welfare system — let’s make it accessible to everyone

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Earlier this year the Biden administration made headlines for including a large investment in kinship foster care in their 2023 proposed budget. This was historic for many reasons, most importantly because it is uncommon for a president to prioritize child welfare in the federal budget, let alone something as specific as kinship care.  

Kinship care is a critical part of the foster care system: under kin care, children in foster care are cared for by someone they know (a family member, family friend, former teacher, etc.) rather than with strangers. Although we have plenty of research to show that kids in the child welfare system do better when placed in kinship care, it is an underutilized and often inaccessible model of care — something this capital infusion could permanently change.  

We have decades of data that demonstrates what most people can probably already guess — families are better when kept together, and when that is not possible, kids do better when kept with people connected to their family in some way. At social services organizations based in major cities like ours, children who were placed in kinship homes exit foster care and enter a permanent home significantly faster than their peers. In 2021, our kids in kinship care achieved permanency with families on average seven months earlier than children who were not. Children in kinship homes also experience fewer changes between foster homes. Moving from foster home to foster home can be scary, destabilizing and even traumatizing for kids so foster care providers work hard to reduce the number of moves a child has or may have. Last year, children in kinship homes experienced 17x fewer foster home changes than children in non-kinship homes. 

So why is kinship care underutilized and often inaccessible? With kinship care, families haven’t opted-in to the foster care system in the same way that recruited foster families have. Rather, they are called for duty in unexpected circumstances. Kinship arrangements are subjected to the same level of scrutiny as standard foster care homes that have spent months applying and preparing before taking in a child. To meet these requirements, and to integrate a child into their home, kinship families who step up during a moment of crisis need, and deserve, different types of support to be set up for success. Such support takes experienced and well-resourced agency staff with the flexibility and creative problem solving needed to bring support to families on an individualized basis.

Additionally, families that open their homes to relatives are often ineligible for the social supports from state and city governments that standard foster care families receive. In some cases, this includes financial support, and in others it includes social services, therapy, education, and other critical resources. The funding included in Biden’s budget would help to address a few of these core challenges — the financial and material burden suddenly placed on families that step in to support children in crisis. But presidential budgets are aspirational, and without leadership and action from legislators, the stated priorities will not come to fruition. 

We know that kinship care is better for kids, but even beyond that, there simply aren’t enough recruited foster families for every child who needs a safe home. Making kinship care more accessible from an agency and procedural standpoint, as well as more feasible for families from a financial and material standpoint, is critical to the future of foster care in this country. Kinship families as foster parents will only continue to grow as the best practice in foster care and outcomes for children will continue to rely on the success of these arrangements.  

Just as best practice case planning work is ‘concurrent planning’ — meaning planning both for the successful return of the child to their family of origin as well as planning for an alternative permanent resource if they are not able to go home — our incoming Congress and state legislators around the country should be thinking about concurrent policy strategies. Policies should seek to both decrease direct financial burdens on kinship families and increase funding to Foster Care agencies allowing them to provide specialized training and individualized supports for all foster parents — kin and non-kin.  

Shannon Ghramm-Smith, LCSW is senior vice president of child welfare and behavioral health at The New York Foundling.

Tags foster care kinship care

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