The State of Kinship Care Legislation 2017, Part II: The Way Forward

This is Part 2 of a 2 part series. To read Part 1, “The State of Kinship Care 2017: Best Intentions,” click here.

In Part 1 of this analysis, we discussed the issues California was facing as it rolled out its resource family approval (RFA) process. We began exploring the ways that all kinship caregivers across the nation encounter obstacles as they attempt to provide the best care for their children. Specifically, we delved into federally-based solutions that Congress has begun implementing, but these broad stroke measures, while helpful, simply cannot directly address some of the issues that individual states face as they promote kinship care initiatives. Often, these issues stem from the unforeseen consequences of operating within a bureaucracy as state governments attempt to balance the rights of parents (both biological and foster) with the best outcomes for children in kinship care.

kinship caregivers

For instance, California’s RFA process that is now preventing kinship caregivers from receiving stipends was intended to take only 90 days. However, in their attempts to impose more rigorous standards for resource parents and provide better outcomes and avoid tragedies (See: “Foster Care Negligence, Abuse and Death”), legislators accidentally created a practice that was inhibiting placements. According to the Chronicle of Social Change, despite the launch of the reforms “some county workers were unaware that extended family members were able to receive money from the state as resources families.” With workers unaware of the most up-to-date legislation, the child welfare system effectively functions under old, outdated laws.

Meanwhile in Kentucky, relative caregivers are struggling with similar issues of financial crisis but for different reasons – the subsidized kinship program had its funding gutted by the legislature to balance the state budget. As reported previously in Foster and Adoptive Family Services’ article, “Grandma Underground,” the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in January of 2017 that Kentucky is obligated to pay relative caregivers the same as traditional foster parents, setting a precedent that could have implications across the nation. However, that decision is currently being appealed and without any formalized state-sponsored kinship program or kinship care legislation, Kentucky’s relative caregivers will continue to struggle. Currently, the programs available to the state’s kinship parents are all provided by the federal government.

As the country moves forward with its kinship care initiative, these solutions must be monitored and adjusted as the needs of kinship parents become more clearly defined. For instance, what happens when the child’s birth parents are the only remaining blood relatives? Would it be better to place the child with a stranger in a traditional foster home, or with someone the child has a pre-existing relationship with? In this way, even the definition of “relative caregiver” can create new issues that prevent the best outcomes for children in care. In 9 states, including Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, the definition of relative caregiver has been expanded or modified to include individuals who may not be directly related to the child in question but who have a pre-existing, emotionally significant relationship. The language of kinship care is changing as a result, with terms such as “fictive kin” (as in Illinois and New Mexico) and “nonrelative kin” (North Carolina) being used to describe these relationships in kinship care legislation. More than blood relation, child welfare professionals have found that it is the emotional connection that helps to build resilience in these children.

Another issue which has cropped up in the face of the increase in kinship placements revolves around the children’s educational and medical well-being. For most states, a kinship caregiver does not have legal custody and therefore cannot enroll a child in school or make any medical decisions on their behalf – the biological parents still retain those rights. While this precedent maintains birth parent rights, it can, at times, inhibit the positive development of children in care. As a result, educational and medical consent laws have been receiving revisions. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, 40 states and the District of Columbia allow kinship caregivers to make medical decisions for children in their care and 31 states allow them to make educational decisions.

Medical and educational decision-making is just one way that kinship parents can be empowered to best care for children, but they are also post-placement concerns. Trauma, however, is something that sticks with a child even as they enter a new placement. Many times, relative caregivers will underestimate the trauma that their nieces, nephews or grandchildren have experienced and therefore will be unprepared for the trauma-related behavior that those children may exhibit. According to Delia Martinez, a Texas kinship caregiver, “I thought because my grandkids were babies, they were not going to have any problems. Boy was I wrong! They had problems with separation anxiety; it was so painful to see them go through this.” As Generations United, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and supporting kinship caregivers, reports in their 2017 study, “specialized training for foster parents to become licensed as ‘therapeutic foster parents’ – equipping them to raise children who have been traumatized and have high-level needs” is “rarely offered” to kinship parents. Two counties in Pennsylvania (and some communities in Texas) are providing what is known as “Kinship Treatment Foster Care” (TFC). TFC is a program aimed at ensuring that traumatized children removed from their homes can remain permanently with their kin if reunification is not possible. The process relies on the Structured Intervention Treatment Foster Care Model, using evidence-based practices to help kinship caregivers prepare their home for a traumatized child who might otherwise have been placed in a residential treatment center. In other cases, TFC is used to help children transition out of group homes and treatment centers and into a relative’s home. As foster children tend to have more trauma-related issues than children in the general population, initiatives like the TFC are critical for ensuring a successful transition away from traditional models of foster care.

These are just a few of the ways that child welfare providers can adapt their systems to better serve relative caregivers. Generations United has provided a list of 8 specific recommendations to help states improve their support of kinship parents. They include:

• Reforming federal financing to bolster kinship navigator programs such as those discussed in FAFS’ Blog, “Kinship Navigator Program: Finding Help”
• Increasing the availability of and access to trauma-informed training and supports
• Eliminating or streamline licensing barriers for relative caregivers
• Promoting evidence-based practices with a federal task force

In New Jersey, FAFS has been promoting kinship care for several years. In 2012, FAFS published a white paper called, “The Changing Landscape of Foster Care” which emphasized the need for greater support of kinship caregivers. Alongside the state-run Kinship Navigator Program mentioned in Part 1 of this analysis, New Jersey also has several programs that provide support to relative caregivers, including statewide resources such as:

KinKonnect, the New Jersey Kinship Legal Guardianship Resource Center
Grandma K.A.R.E.S., Inc.
New Jersey Adoption Resource Clearing House – NJ ARCH
New Jersey Self-Help Group Clearinghouse

In addition to these programs, FAFS itself offers direct support to kinship parents just as it would to traditional foster parents. In New Jersey, traditional foster parents and kinship caregivers are collectively known as “resource parents,” and are eligible for all the same benefits, supports and education if they are licensed with the state. However, FAFS recognizes the unique needs of kinship caregivers and provides a specific training, Issues in Kinship Care, that covers the issues they face. Finally, both the FAFS blog and newsletter provide insight into nationwide programs and trends to keep relative caregivers well-informed of the challenges they will face as well as the support they’ll need to overcome those obstacles.

To learn more about how you can be supported as a kinship provider in New Jersey, check out the Generations United State Fact Sheet or call our Information Line at 1.800.222.0047.

To view the Generations United report on kinship care trends and resources nationwide, “In Loving Arms,” click here.

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