Investing in Youth and Families: The Importance of Family Bonds and Kinship Care

Kathleen Creamer, Managing Attorney, Family Advocacy Unit, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia; Rachael M. Miller, Policy Director, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children; and Jenny Pokempner, Senior Attorney, Juvenile Law Center,
Child with older relatives

A Blog Series for National Kinship Care Month: First Installment

September is National Kinship Care Month. This blog series highlights the great importance of valuing and supporting family and kin to ensure a child welfare system that minimizes the trauma that children face if they come into contact with the system and promotes equity for families and well-being for children. This series will spotlight key issues related to promoting kinship care and family connections and introduce ideas for reform. This opening blog introduces the topic and focuses on how valuing and supporting kin can promote racial equity, the need to support informal and formal kin placements by providing concrete service and resources supports, and the need to reform licensing of kin. 

As we embark on National Kinship Care Month, it is important to elevate and value family connections.  This means supporting bonds between biological parents and children, and when that is not possible, ensuring that children remain connected to their culture, including their relatives and kin of the same race, ethnicity, and community. Kin should be celebrated- for stepping up and stepping in when needed- but also for the support they provide to biological parents and caregivers during their time of need. Finding ways to support parents and caregivers to minimize the trauma to children is good public policy and should be a shared goal for all of us. 

Providing concrete support to parents and kin in much more comprehensive ways can prevent youth from entering the child welfare system and increase the likelihood of permanency when they leave the system. Given the disproportionate number of families of color encountering the child welfare system due to poverty, policies that affirmatively support family and kin can also promote racial equity.

Far too often, we are separating children from their families rather than seeking ways to stabilize and support them. Far too many youth are removed from the home due to “neglect” or lack of resources to meet the needs of children, which frequently translates to poverty.  Poverty disproportionately impacts families of color, who are over surveilled, policed, and ultimately reported to the child welfare system.  The 2019 Adoption and Foster Care and Reporting System indicates that 63% of child removals were associated with “neglect” and another 10% for “housing” as the leading circumstances associated with their placement; compared to 13% for physical abuse and 4% for sexual abuse. Federal legislation, the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) enacted in 2018, more intentionally focuses on primary prevention to support families through evidence-based services.  Sadly, states are still struggling with implementation and less than one-third of states have developed plans to meet these goals.  We need to protect the bond between children and parents, and that starts with supporting and stabilizing families, and connecting them to community-based services that can help mitigate risk.

When youth cannot remain safely with their parents, placement with kin—informally or formally--tends to support their connection with their parents and family and promote their well-being. Investing in financial and service supports is vital to making kinship care placement possible and successful. 

Trends in child welfare law and practice have moved in the direction of providing some level of support for kin caregiving, but much more must be done to provide concrete supports to kin, especially in the case of older youth, sibling groups, and youth with special needs.

One important way to support informal kinship placements is Kinship Navigator Programs. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 2.7 million children were living with kin outside of the foster care system in 2018. In Pennsylvania in 2018, there were over 89,000 grandparents caring for over 100,000 children informally without child welfare support.  As a result of identification of significant needs of this population, Act 89 of 2018 established Pennsylvania’s Kinship Navigator Program, also known as KinConnector. The program’s purpose is to support kin in locating local, state and federal resources to adequately care for children outside of the child welfare system. Navigator programs are important because they help kin address struggles when caring for children, including limited financial support, difficulty accessing childcare, lack of formal legal rights to the child, and challenges locating resources. 

Formal placement is one of the most traumatic experiences a child can encounter. If youth must be placed in the child welfare system, their well-being is served by placing them with kin. Yet, of the almost 25,000 children served in the foster care system in 2019 in Pennsylvania, only 38% were placed in a kinship home. While Pennsylvania’s rate is slightly higher than the national average of 32%, most children go to live with strangers or in congregate care settings such as group homes or institutions.  Addressing the barriers to placing children with kin is essential to ensuring child wellbeing and permanency. Outdated regulatory practice and guidance that has not kept pace with the evolution of policy often leads to discriminatory decision making. Caregivers must be conditionally approved as a kinship caregiver by the county child welfare agency in order to be a formal placement resource and to be licensed. Caregivers can be denied due to historical structural and institutional racist policies, including allowing personal bias of caseworkers in decision making. Our policies leave too much discretion and subjectivity and do not include factors that are adequately defined and protect against bias. Currently, kin can be denied for reasons that may have nothing to do with the capacity to care for the child. We need to find ways of eliminating unnecessary and unlawful barriers to kin being approved and licensed.

In honor of National Kinship Caregiver Month, Community Legal Services, Juvenile Law Center, and Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, along with our colleagues, will use this blog series as an opportunity to openly discuss and elevate challenges in our system that prevent the preservation of family connections and placement with kin. Some of these issues include older youth needs for kin connections, attorney representation to preserve families, support of kinship care to promote race equity, and recommendations to improve practices. It is also critical that we listen to the children, youth, and families who have these lived experiences as we uplift these issues. We will explore some of these issues in this series and hope they will spark conversation and efforts for reform and innovation.