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Seeking support for kinship caregivers

Policy changes proposed to bridge financial and training gaps for foster families

Seeking support for kinship caregivers

Tori Shuler was 3 when she and her four siblings entered the child welfare system. Following the termination of her mother’s parental rights and a temporary stay at a care facility, she and her two younger sisters were placed with her paternal great-grandmother.

Several years later, Shuler’s father regained custody of his daughters after her great-grandmother passed away, though substance abuse and the threat of investigations by Child Protective Services drove the family to move frequently.

When Shuler was 16, she and her sisters were officially removed from their father’s custody and began living with a family that knew them rather than enter the foster care system. The arrangement, in which a relative or close family connection takes responsibility for a child that has been removed from their parents’ custody, is referred to as a kinship care placement.

“For me, as someone who experienced foster care, this is a really good shift,” said Shuler, who now works as director of advocacy for the South Carolina-based nonprofit Fostering Great Ideas. “If children can stay in their communities, but especially with someone they know, [like] a family member or a family friend, the trauma there is reduced.”

In recent years, research has shown that children who live with family or other trusted adults until they can safely reunite with their parents are less likely to reenter the foster care system than those who are placed in a stranger’s home. Those findings have driven efforts to focus child welfare practices on family stability and relational care networks whenever it is safe and in the child’s best interest.

As state and federal legislators prioritize kinship placements for children entering the foster care system, child welfare officials have highlighted the need to provide families with financial support, trauma training, and access to mental health services for children and adults.

The 2018 Family First Prevention Service Act, permitted states to use federal dollars previously earmarked for foster care and adoption to support programs and services to strengthen families and prevent children from entering the foster care system. The law also allocated funds to establish “kinship navigator” programs to connect kinship caregivers with services.

Building on the existing law, the Biden administration’s proposed 2023 federal budget includes a plan to reimburse state spending on kinship care placements or guardianships at a higher rate than nonrelative foster homes and group homes. The plan would also allow a higher percentage of spending on prevention efforts than previous legislation allocated.

Before the beginning of the official system of foster care, families often used kinship care when a parent or parents were unable to care for their children, said Christine Tangle, director of pre- and post-adoption services at Spence-Chapin, a nonprofit adoption agency.

“We can look at this globally and within our culture,” Tangle said. “If you as a parent couldn’t care for your child, one of the first places you might look in most cultures is the people who are closest to you—your relatives or very close friends—to provide that care.”

Shuler said kinship care offers greater stability and consistency than traditional foster care.

“These kids continue to keep everything that they know if they’re with family or with their fictive kin. So there won’t be so much change that they are going through,” said Tamra Scott-Wilson, the statewide kinship care program manager for the South Carolina Department of Social Services. Fictive kin refers to an adult or family who is not biologically related to a child but who knows them and has assumed responsibility for their care.

“There are benefits for [the biological family] as well. They know their child is safe with family that know and love them,” Scott-Wilson said.

Nationally, 391,098 children were in foster care at the end of fiscal year 2021, which represented a 10-year low, according to data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. Of those in care, 35 percent lived with a relative and 44 percent were in non-kin foster homes compared to 26 percent and 48 percent in 2011, respectively.

While federal decisions affect available funding and broad shifts in policy, states still largely determine child welfare programs and operations, Scott-Wilson said.

In September, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMasters signed a bill that allows the Department of Social Services to place a child with a relative or fictive kin who is not yet licensed as a foster parent. The bill also allows families to receive financial assistance while in the process of becoming licensed, a process that typically takes 90 days.

Unlicensed caregivers are not eligible to receive the same benefits as foster families who have completed home studies, trauma training, and education about supporting children in times of transition.

Informal kinship families are formed outside of the foster care system without an active child welfare case or oversight from authorities. Without an official placement, these families have less access to government-allocated financial support and resources than those in formal placements.

Tangle said that it is imperative for kinship families to have access to trauma-informed training, mental healthcare, and education about navigating transition. Unlike licensed foster families, most kinship caregivers have not already undergone training and certification when they assume care responsibilities for their relative’s child or children.

“Kinship can be a great solution. But are we providing and expecting the same type of training and education for those families about trauma and attachment?” said Kristen Hamilton, director of communications for the National Council For Adoption. “Grandma might be a familiar person, but if her child or her grandchild is coming into her home, and they’ve experienced abuse. … We owe it to her to support her just as much as we would any other foster adoptive family.”

In South Carolina, Scott-Wilson and her team facilitate the Caring for our Own training program that teaches caregivers about the foster care system, resources that are available to them and their children, and how to work through transitions and build community with other caregivers.

Due to the unanticipated nature of kinship arrangements and the potentially complex family dynamics involved, Hamilton and Tangle agree that training, education, and counseling should be tailored to meet the unique needs of the family.

“The shift is happening. … Kids are staying in families, but we need to shift everything in that direction,” Shuler said. “The funding needs to shift in that direction. The support needs to shift in that direction. And to only shift the placement, people are going to fall through the cracks.”

Lauren Canterberry

Lauren Canterberry is a reporter for WORLD. She graduated from the World Journalism Institute and the University of Georgia with a degree in journalism, both in 2017. She worked as a local reporter in Texas and now lives in Georgia with her husband.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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