Family connection provides one of the most important contributions to the development and identity of children. A child’s family connections help them grow and thrive, provide them identity and security, and are a critical link to culture and traditions.
When experiencing difficult times, family members can support each other in ways no one else can, with the shared goal of keeping the family intact and connected.
When a child’s life is disrupted, calling on the support of family is custom in most communities and can be a great source of comfort for both children and the family. This is especially true for children and youth who are experiencing abuse, trauma or neglect. Enlisting the support of kin can proactively prevent a child’s formal involvement in the child welfare system, or removal from the home in the first place. If it is necessary for the child to be removed, placement with kin can reduce the trauma of removal by providing continuity of care and connections to their family and community. Removing children from the home of their parents or caregivers should always be the decision of last resort, but if it is necessary to ensure safety, placement considerations should first be with kin – blood relatives and those by marriage or adoption, a godparent or member of the child’s tribe – who have a significant relationship with the child or the child’s family. Research shows that compared with children in nonrelative care, youth placed with kin experience better outcomes in the following areas:
- Placement stability;
- School stability and positive educational outcomes;
- Reduced re-entry into the child welfare system;
- Permanency through reunification, adoption or
- Better physical, behavioral and mental health outcomes;
- Increased likelihood of living with or staying connected
- to siblings; and
- Greater preservation of race and cultural identity,
- including community connections.
Unfortunately, not all children who enter foster care are afforded the opportunity to be placed with kin or allowed to maintain these critical kinship connections. In fact, of the more than 24,000 children placed in the Pennsylvania foster care system in 2019, only 38% were placed with kin.
Informally, kin caregivers often intervene without the need for formal child welfare involvement. Nationally, 2.7 million children are being raised by grandparents or kin, informally, without a parent residing in the home. But services and supports for kin differ significantly depending on involvement with the child welfare system or raising the child informally without support.
Far too often, kin are arbitrarily disqualified for placement and licensure as formal caregivers due to outdated practices and policies, implicit bias in decision-making or if kin are not provided adequate supports and services to stabilize and sustain the placement. In fact, if formal placement with kin disrupts, the child is more likely to enter a congregate care setting, such as an institution or group home, and less likely to be placed in another kinship home. Children with a higher level of needs, such as mental or behavioral health care needs, are not always provided with adequate services to support them in the family-based setting, leading to placement disruption. Most formal kinship foster parents are not provided with the option to become therapeutic foster parents for the related child. While Pennsylvania has made great strides in ensuring family preservation, placement with kin and the maintenance of kinship connections, there is an opportunity to identify strategies to increase these outcomes and become a national leader in putting families first. Concrete policy solutions can improve this trajectory, making Pennsylvania a model for other states.
Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children
Heidi Redlich Epstein, Lucy Johnston-Walsh, Jennifer Pokempner, Kathleen Creamer, and Karissa Phelps, Kinship Care in Pennsylvania: Creating an Equitable System for Families Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (2021).