Strategies for Promoting Kinship Bonds for Older Youth—Recommendations from Young People

Jennifer K. Pokempner, Esq. ,
teen and older man playing chess outside in city.

In 2019, one of Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy programs, Youth Fostering Change, chose as their policy project older youth permanency. Many of the young people in the group aged out without being connected to family and they had a lot to say about what could have been done to help them find family, including their own relatives and kin. They produced a Report with recommendations. In this blog, we will share some of their insights and recommendations about how we can support and promote kinship care for older youth.

The great importance of family connections does not decrease with age. In fact, family connections are some of the strongest, most powerful indicators of future success in adulthood. Family and kin provide a sense of identity and belonging that children need as they grow to understand who they are and what they want to become. Family members and supportive adults provide encouragement, mentorship, and love that allow youth to take on the challenges of growing up. They are often an essential safety net for young people. Never has the importance of family been so clear as during the COVID-19 pandemic. Young people without family are struggling to make ends meet and do not have access to the material and moral support of family that is keeping most children and adults afloat during the pandemic. The fact is that almost 50% of transition aged youth age out of foster care in PA without finding permanency and family. These young people need and deserve family and promoting and supporting kinship bonds can go far to prevent youth from aging out, support their healthy development as they transition to adulthood and show respect for the relationships they value.

Unfortunately, many older youth told us that they did not feel that their family and kinship relationships were valued or supported when they were in the child welfare system. Instead they shared the following experiences:

  • We lost connections with our siblings, including with those who entered foster care with us and went to separate placements, and were not supported to maintain those relationships.
     
  • We lost relationships if our siblings were adopted.
     
  • We did not get assistance maintaining relationships with our relatives who couldn’t provide permanent placement.
     
  • There was no support for relationships with relatives who were important to us because the agency did not think they were a good influence.
     
  • We ran away to see our biological parents or family, and when we “aged” out or left care we returned to our family of origin or searched for family we lost contact with while in care.
     
  • We felt anger, grief, and loss from family separation and struggled to adjust, even when in supportive placements.

 

What can we do to turn around these practices that can result in youth aging out? How can we promote and support kinship bonds for older youth? Here are a few ideas that come from our work with young people:

 

1. Listen to young people.

We need to listen to youth for what they have to say to us about their important relationships and because they must feel heard and respected in the permanency planning process.

Most young people have support networks and people they consider family even if they are not related by blood. Youth need to feel respected and trust must be developed for young people to share this information.

We must ask youth who they consider kin or family and consider those individuals as potential supports to the youth without judgement and bias.

In every family, we care about family members even if they may not be able to provide material support for us. These same relationships must be nurtured for young people in foster care even when those relationships pose challenges. We must respect and honor all of these relationships and work to cultivate these family relationships while youth are in care. Maintaining these connections help young people feel a sense of community and lead to a better chance of leaving care with multiple supportive connections. If young people do not feel engaged and respected in the permanency planning process, they are unlikely to share information about who is important to them.

 

2. Do family finding rigorously and with fidelity for all youth until permanency is achieved.

Pennsylvania is lucky to have a law that requires family finding annually until permanency is achieved. Yet, as youth get older, they do not get the benefit of family finding with as much frequency as younger children. Our laws on family finding should be enforced and we must make sure that family is not just identified but efforts are made to engage them in the youth’s life. We must take the opportunity to support, and strengthen relationships that youth identify as important and those who are identified through family finding. This means cultivating relationships with individuals who may not be able to provide placement or legal permanency but can be vital supporters to the youth. We should screen in and build supports around youth rather than screening out individuals.

 

3. Our laws around sibling placement and visitation must be enforced.

Next to parents, siblings are the kin with whom we often are most connected. Federal law requires reasonable efforts to place siblings together and to provide for frequent visitation when siblings are not jointly placed. Pennsylvania law goes even further, requiring that siblings be placed together unless it is contrary to the safety or well-being of either sibling, and that visitation occur at least two times a month if joint placement cannot occur. Despite these legal protections many siblings are not placed together and are not in contact with one another. Judges, lawyers, and child welfare staff must make sure these laws are followed, and the sibling bonds are protected.

 

4. Never lose urgency to connect youth with family and kin.

As youth enter their teen years the response from the child welfare system is often to give up on permanency and to prepare youth to be on their own. The system’s response to youth who are about to age out is typically to shift the focus to preparation for adulthood and the hard skills needed to succeed in the adult world. Youth deserve to be prepared for adulthood and to connect with family and kin. We should never give up on making this is a reality for all youth in the child welfare system.

Effective and equitable child welfare policy depends on listening to young people and families. We must work with young people to ensure that their voices are heard and that policies respond to their needs and recommendations. Specifically, we recommend the following policies:

  • Federal law should require family finding and engagement as an element of the reasonable efforts requirement to both prevent placement and finalize the permanency plan.
     
  • All states should require family finding and engagement by law until permanency is achieved.
     
  • States should set clear standards for family finding and engagement that include actions that must be taken to engage youth.
     
  • States should develop outcome and accountability measures for family finding and engagement to ensure that all youth, including older youth, receive the benefit of this effective practice until permanency is achieved.
     
  • Federal and state law should develop clear outcome and accountability measures for permanency planning that ensure that requirements for youth participation are complied with and engagement is meaningful.
     
  • Outcomes and accountability standards should be tied to financial penalties and rewards as well as provide young people a private cause of action if requirements are violated.
About the Expert

Jennifer Pokempner is a Senior Attorney at Juvenile Law Center. At Juvenile Law Center, her work focuses on improving outcomes and opportunities for older youth in the foster care system through policy and legal advocacy at the local, state, and national levels.

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