The Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), recently passed through Congress, has massive implications for kinship caregivers in the United States. As previously reported on this site, kinship care, the placement of children with relatives instead of traditional foster parents, has been increasingly viewed as the best form of foster care. This is largely because it uses a child’s existing connections with family for placement instead of relying on people whom the child may not know and might have trouble integrating with. Traditional foster care placement, although intended to serve the best interests of children, often introduces its own brand of pain and trauma when a child is removed from their family. Unfortunately, existing practices in the child welfare system have created momentum in states which can lead to kinship care being underfunded when compared to traditional foster care or congregate (group home) care placements. Over the course of more than fifteen years, Kinship Navigator Programs (KNPs) have been gaining traction as a way to bolster informal kinship care to provide better outcomes for the children living with relative caregivers.
Initially started as state and county-based initiatives, KNPs gained their first national sponsorship through Family Connection Grants provided by the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. However, with only two rounds of these grants occurring in 2009 and 2012, KNPs have not been able to truly flourish in every state. According to Grandfamilies.org, as a result of budgetary crises, only the KNPs in Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Washington state have survived into the present day.
Now, with the FFPSA, the federal government has recognized the need to strengthen kinship communities and is providing states with the means to do so. Among its many provisions, the FFPSA opens up consistent federal funding to states that implement statewide Kinship Navigator Programs.
What is a Kinship Navigator Program?
When talking about Kinship Navigator Programs, it is important to distinguish between the many kinds of kinship care that exist (See: Kinship Care in the United States). For the purposes of this article, the term “formal kinship” represents the relative caregivers serving as foster parents and caring for children who are in the legal custody of the state, while “informal kinship” represents relative caregivers who are caring for children without the state taking legal custody of the child.
Typically, informal kinship care occurs when parents make arrangements directly with their family members to care for their children or cooperate with the state to avoid losing custody. Kinship Navigator Programs are the primary way to assist such caregivers and assuage fears that a child will be removed from her relative’s home. Before the FFPSA, however, there were no federal guidelines for what a given state’s KNP should look like. As a result, both informal and formal kinship care standards could vary widely from state to state, leaving some kinship caregivers without assistance while traditional foster parents receiving guidance, financial assistance and services for fulfilling the same duties. To complicate matters, in some places, KNPs are the only way informal kinship caregivers can receive financial assistance.
Although states like Ohio, New Jersey and New York maintain statewide KNPs, others, like Washington, contract the KNP work on a county-by-county basis. Without federal funding or guidance, state budgets can struggle to come up with the requisite funds that provide the necessary services to kinship caregivers, especially the community of informal kinship parents. In the case of Kentucky, financial hardship in the state’s budget resulted in the elimination of money available to informal kinship parents and resulted in a backlash from many relative caregivers (See: Grandma Underground). Under the FFPSA regulations, in addition to more than eighteen million dollars of federal allotments, states will now be able to claim a 50 percent reimbursement for expenses related to Kinship Navigator Programs. These efforts will greatly help to reduce the burden on states like Kentucky and ensure that informal kinship caregivers can still get the funds, information and services needed to produce the best outcomes for the children in their care. In order to qualify, however, the states will have to follow a number of standards to ensure that their Kinship Navigator Programs will serve the best interests of the children and families.
What are the New Requirements for a Kinship Navigator Program?
In order to qualify for the funding that the FFPSA makes available, the federal government has set forth specific requirements for Kinship Navigator Programs. These requirements can be broken up into roughly three categories – administration, information and services.
In terms of administration, the FFPSA requires that states 1) coordinate their KNPs with other state and local agencies to prevent duplication or fragmentation of services and 2) plan and operate in consultation with relevant caregivers and governmental, community-based and faith-based organizations that are a part of the kinship community. By coordinating and consulting with the organizations directly involved in kinship care, states will ensure that the systems within their Kinship Navigator Programs will function as smoothly as possible and in an appropriate manner for the needs of their individual kinship communities. In the event that the resulting KNP is for some reason unsatisfactory, the FFPSA also empowers states to create a kinship care ombudsman, an official who will be responsible for investigating complaints from the public relating to the mismanagement of the KNP. The ombudsman will also have “authority to intervene and help kinship caregivers access services. They also may support any other activities designed to assist kinship caregivers in obtaining benefits and services to improve their caregiving.”
The FFPSA also requires that KNPs stay up-to-date with information that will keep them in touch with the specific needs and unique hardships of informal kinship caregivers. To ensure that state KNPs remain relevant, they will be required to “promote partnerships” between organizations and government agencies involved in kinship care to increase their knowledge of kinship caregiver needs and promote and develop better services.
Finally, the Kinship Navigator Programs must provide a number of specific services that can directly help kinship caregivers with any concerns or obstacles they may encounter. This includes the establishment of toll-free information phone lines and referral services that will help caregivers, support group facilitators and service providers connect not only with each other but also with legal assistance, benefit eligibility, enrollment information and training. States will also have to develop and maintain a website or collection of guides and outreach materials (which they are also responsible for distributing).
What Does an Evidenced-Based Kinship Navigator Program Look Like?
There is one part of the FFPSA’s Kinship Navigator regulations, however, that is not quite as clear cut as the rest. Specifically, the federal government requires that any KNP developed by states follow evidence-based practices. Evidence-based practices are methods that have been developed over the course of many months or years, subject to rigorous scientific evaluation and have shown significant, sustained effects, preferably across multiple studies and large populations. In many fields, such as juvenile justice, evidence-based practices are helpful in providing proven treatment options that are known to produce desired positive outcomes. The child welfare community, however, does not currently have many examples of such practices.
Implementing an Evidence-Based Kinship Navigator Program
To help provide guidance on the development of evidence-based practices for Kinship Navigator Programs, the FFPSA requires the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to create a clearinghouse of approved services. Many sources, including the National Conference of State Legislators and Annie E. Casey Foundation, suggest that this clearinghouse will be modeled after the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse on Child Welfare (CEBC).
Although it currently has no fully-tested examples of evidence-based KNPs, the CEBC does indicate that Children’s Home Network provides a good example. This Florida-based KNP underwent a five-year evaluation and not only produced a low rate of foster care re-entry (roughly one percent) but also a tremendous financial savings when compared with traditional foster care and congregate care placements. With an October 2018 deadline for HHS to develop the clearinghouse, states should have access to the necessary information to build effective Kinship Navigator Programs by the end of the year. In the meantime, however, the Annie E. Casey Foundation suggests that states lay the foundation for their KNPs by emphasizing direct services in place of information or referral, developing community-based approaches, working to serve children in in-home placements and creating the kinship care ombudsman as recommended by the FFPSA.
New Jersey’s Kinship Navigator Program
In New Jersey, which actively maintains a Department of Children and Families (DCF) website filled with Kinship Navigator Program information, many of the requirements of the FFPSA are already in place. In terms of services, the New Jersey KNP provides financial assistance for a range of services including, but not limited to, medical coverage, legal fees, furniture costs and tutoring services. In addition to the website, informal kinship caregivers can also dial the 211 warm line to gain help with addressing any immediately pressing issues or to find a local kinship agency that can help provide additional services. There is also a clear legal guardianship pathway that the state can assist with and helps relative caregivers gain legal custody of the children in their care.