Family Preservation Matters: Why Kinship Care for Black Families, Native American Families, and Other Families of Color is Critical to Preserve Culture and Restore Family Bonds

Marcía Hopkins, MSW, Senior Manager, Youth Advocacy Program & Policy,
man and baby

Valuing and pursuing kinship care arrangements promotes racial equity and is essential to ensuring permanency for children and youth and their communities.

Kinship care must be sought more frequently and be a top priority for Black and Native families and other communities in the child welfare system that have been historically disenfranchised, ripped apart, and devalued throughout American history. The child welfare system must prioritize the kinship care model to ensure the care of children, promote equity among families, sustain family/familial relationships, and to protect, and preserve the culture and history of these communities.

Supporting kinship care is a protective factor for children and communities, allows families to feel a sense of belonging and identity, and allows communities to carry on traditions and preserve their histories. The use of kinship has increased in the United States child welfare system; however, it is not yet pursued with the same urgency and at the scale necessary to meet the needs of children and their families. This is so even when the research is clear that placement with kin shows increased rates of stability and permanency for children. During my own time in foster care, kinship care was not pursued. As a woman with both Black and Native American heritage, I do not believe the system valued or supported my biological and familial relationships. This was true despite the fact that several family members were ready and willing to care for me. My sister and I spent eight years seeing our siblings every two weeks at family visits and for weekend visits. We celebrated our sister owning her own home at the age of 19, and our 21-year-old brother played an active role as our father. Yet no one ever pursued kinship care. Instead, for 8 years we were placed 3 hours away from family and our community. Even now at age 31, I still feel a sense of grief for the lost time, missed memories growing up with siblings, and still find disappointment in not knowing some biological family members after so much time apart.

Kinship care has historically been used in communities of color to care for children and family members. For decades, many communities developed and used extended family and community members in the upbringing of children and still do today. This informal “kinship” care has been a strength for many cultures, including communities of color, throughout history. In Native American culture, kinship is broadly defined so that everyone within the band, clan, and tribe is considered a relative and plays a supportive role in caring for community members. For Black families, child rearing by relatives has been a long-standing tradition and protective factor that was especially beneficial for Black families during slavery and often elderly relatives cared for children whose parents were sold into slavery. This method of informal “kinship” continues to exist within the Black community, and before the 1980’s many Black children were cared for by kin outside of the child welfare system. Keeping Native and Black communities together so they can continue to care for each other and develop solutions for healing the family recognizes, respects, and builds on the strengths of these communities and their cultures. Having the opportunity to continue kinship within these communities supports the growth and well-being of the child (or children) by decreasing the amount of trauma caused by severed ties when children enter into the child welfare system and ensures that the entire familial community maintains connections that would have otherwise been lost.

Using kinship care preserves cultural identity, traditions, and allows children to continue to feel connected and a sense of belonging to not only their families, but their community and culture. Ensuring that Black and Native children remain within their family of origin, including fictive kin, can provide long term positive effects, as kinship ensures children continue to maintain strong bonds with other family members, like siblings, and grandparents. This allows children to continue, to feel a sense of belonging and community, fosters their cultural identity, and allows them to heal from trauma, and build a network of support as they grow up.

The child welfare system has an opportunity to use the kinship care model to maintain the culture and preservation of Native American, and Black people, so their children can carry on their heritage and have the benefit of the protective factors that family support bring to children. Racial equity is promoted by ensuring these families have the support necessary to continue these bonds. It upholds the preservation of Black and Native American culture and allows families to continue their spiritual and cultural traditions, while maintaining and building their communities, and strengthening and repairing family bonds that may have otherwise been broken by system involvement. In its most basic form, kinship care allows families to continue to care for, love and support the children.

Zealously pursuing kinship care in policy and practice is a key strategy for promoting racial equity and family reunification in the child welfare system. To do this we must value families of color and when children first enter care, identify kin and/or fictive kin for children and youth, and continue this throughout a youth’s time in care. Children must be actively involved in this process, and we must also utilize tools like mining a youth’s case file, and family finding technology to identify family who can provide permanent housing and family who can provide other emotional support and resources. We must help these individuals be in position to care for the child even if that means providing financial and other service supports. To promote equity and care for children, these practices must be in laws and policies so all youth experience their benefit.