The State of Kinship Care Legislation 2017, Part I: Best Intentions

Every year, child welfare agencies across the country are increasing their emphasis on kinship care, a form of foster care that gives placement preference to relative caregivers instead of traditional foster parents who are strangers to the children placed with them. Widely recognized as the better way to care for foster children, kinship care legislation has been making its way to law for the better part of the last decade. However, kinship placements are very different from traditional ones – the complex intrafamily dynamics and unique family relationships combined with support systems that fail to account for these aspects of kinship care often mean that legislation can fall short of helping relative caregivers. In 2017, California introduced its Resource Family Approval process (RFA), a reform that, in part, aims to register and financially compensate relative caregivers in the same ways that the state handles traditional foster parents.

A typical complaint of relative caregivers is a lack of state support so this reform seemed to be, from the legislators’ perspectives, a slam dunk – getting these kinship families registered with the state would make it easier to pay them the appropriate stipends while also linking them up to necessary supports beyond the traditional financial assistance.

Very quickly, however, flaws with the system began to emerge. “I’m actively expecting my landlord to show up at any point in time and hand me a three-day notice and start the eviction process,” Mahoganie LaFranks, a Los Angeles kinship provider, said. “I love this kid, but I am completely petrified.” LaFranks had begun the RFA process in September of 2017, but had been caring for a teen since January. By the time December rolled around, the process was still not complete – meaning LaFranks was not receiving the $923 monthly stipend that resource families typically receive in California. With many new responsibilities regarding the teen but without the extra money, LaFranks found herself behind on rent and struggling to find a job that fits into her parenting schedule.

With situations like these becoming more commonplace, the kinship care system in California could struggle to increase relative caregiver placements. According to Susan Abrams, policy director at the Children’s Law Center of Los Angeles, “We’ve seen placements fail, we’ve had caregivers say, ‘I can’t take care of these kids, I literally just don’t have the finances.’” According to the Chronicle of Social Change, these issues have, in some cases, “led to some children leaving placements with family members and moving to foster homes with strangers or to group homes….” Although it was aimed at incentivizing relatives to provide care for these children, the RFA quickly became an obstacle that some relatives simply could not get over. Relative caregivers represent a unique situation in foster care, and as such, kinship care legislation needs to take into account the various ways that these specific parents approach fostering. But what lessons can be learned from these growing pains?

As of 2015, 30 percent of the nation’s foster children were in kinship care with a relative caregiver. It’s been shown that, compared to children in foster care with non-relatives, children in kinship care have a more stable and safe childhood with fewer (if any) school or home changes. It is easier for these children to stay connected with siblings, as well, and fewer of them return to care after being reunited with their parents. With such positive outcomes at stake, states are doing their best to implement cost-effective and efficient legislation, but analyzing current missteps will be critical in correcting or preventing many of the issues that relative caregivers face. On February 9th of 2018, Congress passed legislation with the goal of helping states manage their own kinship care systems as they refine and improve foster care. Originally from the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPS), provisions of this legislation will have a direct impact on relative caregivers and new state-based kinship care legislation. Dedicating federal funds directly to kinship navigator programs, the bill directly acknowledges the need for improved services for relative caregivers. The legislation intends to help states increase training for parents and provide family therapy options, while also ensuring that relative caregivers will receive many of the same support services offered to traditional foster parents. However, because it is federal legislation, the FFPS is a broad stroke that, while bolstering states’ ability to support relative caregivers, cannot directly address the more specific issues each state faces.

Still, the support given to Kinship Navigator Programs is a vital step. These programs are not only provide information on government services but can also put you in contact with local family support groups. In New Jersey, there are four agencies that administer the Kinship Navigator Programs: Care Plus New Jersey, The Salvation Army, Children’s Home Society and Family Service. In addition to informational and family support services, there’s a 2-1-1 line anyone can dial to be put in touch with the appropriate agency. These agencies can also help to register non-licensed relative caregivers for Kinship Legal Guardianship or provide “wrap around services” which cover one-time, short-term expenses like clothing, moving costs and tutoring to prevent a child from falling behind in school while transitioning to a kinship home.

Kinship Navigator Programs, while vital, are only one piece of the kinship care puzzle. Although New Jersey features a rather robust navigator program with an active 2-1-1 line and a number of support services, not every state functions the same. As the United States grapples with the new revelations about the realities of kinship care, states are doing their best to adjust to the changing landscape. With each new misstep comes new information and, as a result, better outcomes for children in care. In Part 2 of this article, we’ll cover some of the specific struggles states have encountered while implementing kinship care legislation as well as some of the solutions state legislatures have come up with. By examining what has worked and what has not, states can learn from one another and build a better system of care for all the nation’s children.

For more information about New Jersey’s Kinship Navigator Program, read our blog post here, or check out the state’s information portal here.

For more information about Los Angeles’ issues with the RFA, click here.

For more information about how the FFPS helps relative caregivers, check out Generation United’s article here.

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