What’s in your “kinship” wallet?

business organizationWhat’s in your “kinship” wallet?

Can you calculate the yearly cost to raise a child? If you navigate here,  there is an online tool for doing just that.

How do you assign a “value” to raising a child? Here it becomes a little trickier.

It’s always difficult to associate children with money, but it is a fact of life that there are financial costs associated with raising the children you care for and love. There is without a doubt a value to raising a child that knows no price.

A recent report (click here to read and/or watch) about kinship care in Sacramento, California got me thinking about the price vs. value of kinship care. The story raises a topic of significance to those advocating for kinship care as the first response to foster care. For many, a common response is, it’s her grandson, it’s his niece – they should just do it. How does this thinking relate back to price and value?

There are two challenges here – the price of kinship care and the value of kinship care.

My philosophy of child welfare has always been that the voice of the family is the most important so who better than a kinship caregiver to comment on kinship care, stranger foster care and money.

This what Donita Sears spoke to when a social worker asked her to take on the care and responsibility for her infant niece, Isabella.

“The fact that somebody who chooses to do this is paid more than somebody who’s asked to do it, it’s hard for me to understand. It feels to me like there’s a little bit of a hidden agenda which says let’s go ahead and place these kids with kin because maybe we’re not going to have to pay so much.”

When we treat kinship care different than traditional foster care we are making a value assessment – financial, philosophical and otherwise.

Does the child welfare system “value” kinship care?

There is no doubt that we pay for things we value – a car, a home, insurance, and even a vacation. We often take for granted the things that allow us to survive like air, water, and the ability to communicate.

We have to ask ourselves… How many jurisdictions across the country take kinship care for granted? 

For relative caregivers, kinship care can become a labor of love that can grow into not only a constraining financial situation but one of frustration and hopelessness when the practice of kinship care is not valued by the system. The policies and practices of kinship care are in many places secondary to traditional stranger care. In any transaction there is a bottom line and the bottom line I’m reading is that we are not valuing the family.

The piece in California went on to say that as a kinship provider, Ms. Sears would receive $343 a month. If her niece were with a stranger in traditional foster care, she would receive a minimum of $657 from the foster care system. Although the difference of $314 is significant, even more significant are the policies, practice and mindset that allowed this to occur.

In my recently released book, On My Way Home, I wrote:

The child welfare system needs to respect and understand the value that kin bring to the process of caring for children and ensuring their safety. In many ways, kinship care has “saved” the child welfare system both financially and as a resource. With a dwindling number of traditional foster care providers, agency officials have sought out kin to care for their own. Child welfare systems in many jurisdictions are benefiting from kinship care. But there are still other jurisdictions where kinship care remains a challenge and policies of the past still exclude a group of potential caregivers.

The burden is on jurisdictions to consider kin not only as the first placement option but also as the preferred placement option.

Jurisdictions across America have polices and practices in place that support the placement and licensing of kin if the kinship caregiver selects this as an option for their family. Furthermore, judges across America are becoming more aware of the value of kin and have begun placing children with kin regardless of their licensing status. There are no excuses for inequality in provisions between kin caregivers and traditional foster parents. Yet, policies and practices that speak to kinship care are not valued by many jurisdictions in the country.

The challenge is around educating jurisdictions on why kinship care should be the first placement option. The challenge is around the evolution of how we make this happen. When the why and how are in place, issues around financial equity for kinship caregivers becomes logical and valued.

At my agency, A Second Chance, Inc., our model of placing a traumatized child with kin and then licensing the family has worked for 20 years because we understand and believe in the why and how. Kinship care cannot be made to fit the traditional foster care mold – it is separate, purposeful and it is successful when approached from the lens of valuing the family.

The Price of Kinship Care…

Most of us are familiar with Brom’s quote, “Everything comes with a price. Everything. Some things just cost more than others.”

There’s no denying that some things should cost more than others. If anything, Kinship Care should cost more than traditional foster care because the outcomes for children, families and communities are statistically better.

Think about a time in your life when you lost something you valued. Maybe it was a piece of jewelry and the price tag was high. Maybe it was postcard from your favorite aunt or a photo of your grandmother. Maybe it was the flower you saved from your first Mother’s Day bouquet – these things didn’t come with a high price tag but the value was much more significant.

If I could bottle up kinship care and put it on the shelf to sell I would because next to traditional foster care, it is the better value. In many ways I have gone “door-to-door” to sell people on the advantages of kinship care. I am so confident in the advantages of kinship care that I could never assign a price to it.

To borrow a famous advertising campaign…

Payment to relative caregiver… $657.

The value of kinship care… priceless!  




The Kinship Ties That Bind…

web-mom-tying-shoes-of-childiStock_000009208590SmallWhen a child first learns to tie their shoelaces together, they are either too loose and become easily undone or they are pulled so tightly, they are uncomfortable and difficult to untie or even become knotted. With practice, however, the child learns the balance – the ties should hold the laces together but they should not be difficult to untie when it’s time to take them off.

As Mother’s Day approaches, I think of the ties that bind female kinship caregivers to their daughters and sons and thus to the children in their care, their grandchildren, nephew and nieces. The relationships can certainly test the parameters of motherhood.

Mother’s Day for families in kinship care can easily become an emotional trigger for the ties in the kinship triad – child/youth, caregiver and birthparent. How children and youth will bond with a grandmother or aunt is conflicted with their bond to their natural mother. A child or youth in kinship care has so many questions about the bonds between themselves and their relative caregiver. Should they tie them loosely to maintain a distance? If they tie them too tight are they giving up on their mother?

Of course kin caregivers and birth mothers are reflecting on these very same issues. How tightly should grandma or auntie bond with her grandchildren as a parent? Birth mothers are contemplating if they will ever be able to tie the bonds back together between them, their own child and their parents or siblings.

Caseworkers involved in kinship care must know how to engage families in this dynamic, which is drastically different than foster care involving strangers. In traditional foster care, the “ties that bind” are often intentionally tied loosely because reunification with a parent may not be a priority. However, in my model of kinship care, casework plans are required to explore reunification with the birth parent(s) as the first permanency option if appropriate. Our philosophy and practices revolve around maintaining ties between the birthparent, caregiver and child so that the stigma of care can be removed and motivation established for birthparents to work towards reunifying with their children.

In my recently launched book, “On My Way Home – A Memoir of Kinship, Grace and Hope,” which is a personal story and journey of my own youth in kinship care, I speak to this situation directly.

We must vigilantly pursue permanency for kinship children at the beginning of our engagement with them. The notion that children are with family and kinship bonds are intact is true. However, birth parents have a right to resume parental responsibility, relatives have a right to continue on with their lives, and most importantly, the children have a right to understand what the future will look for them. With that said, the family must be given the right to decide the permanency option that is best for them once the permanency goal of reunification has been ruled out. This decision must include the voice of the youth. Adoption and Subsidized Guardianship, as alternative permanency arrangements, must be discussed early in the life of the case. Aging out or APPLA is not to be considered a permanency option for kinship young people of promise. As I often coach to staff in many decisions, I ask that they apply the “standard of their own.” In other words, if you were the child or the parent, is this what you would want personally?

A developmental approach to relationship building in the kinship triad is central to case management. The SARKS (Standards Assessing and Recognizing Kinship Strengths) model of my agency, A Second Chance, Inc. is our curriculum for working with kinship caregivers. Intentionally, the curriculum is written within the context of a developmental sensitivity. As an example, relationship building between young children and their birth mothers is much different than when working with a teen. Our kinship caseworkers are enriched to facilitate conversations around what information is shared with children/youth, the manner of delivery and even when it should occur. One size does not fit all. My philosophy is that we accommodate not only to the age of the child, but also to the readiness and style of the caregivers. It’s not unusual to actually have our caregivers role play and rehearse what they will say to the children/youth in the care regarding their birth mother.

Learning to tie our shoelaces is one of the things that starts to give us more control in life. When grandmother has to become “mother” to her grandchild niece or nephew – her sense of control becomes misaligned. When a birth mother observes her mother or sister or other family member becoming the parent to her child, she may feel out of control. The child/youth, which is at the center of the triad, is both experiencing and feeling the effects of the control struggle.

I lost my own mother at the age of six. I still feel a sense of loss to this day. During my time in child welfare, no one was there to help me navigate my feelings around the kin that took turns attempting to fill in for my mother. And that is the point. No one can fill in for your mother.

I am committed to people first and process second. Kinship care works for those who are committed to family. Even in the best of situations, the ties that bind us can unravel or become so knotted they are difficult to remove. But in the end we know we have to do something – we cannot run around with a loose shoe or one tied so tightly that it hurts or we can’t untie it and take it off. In the context of kinship care, we must demonstrate in our policies and practices that caregivers and birthparents must monitor and reflect on their own behaviors so that a child or youth does not have to deal with the additional trauma of control. As long as we have something in common, there will always be a tie. How we tie things together is usually in our control.

Let’s keep the kinship care conversations going…
Please share your thoughts here and please feel free to share this post with others.

Time to close the bank…


Time to break the bank…

In the course of writing a book, you think a lot about words. We’ve heard people say, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it.” There are two sides to all communication – content and delivery. How we relate to people is dependent on both. This got me thinking about the “New-to-You Clothing Bank” at my agency, A Second Chance, Inc.  Our clothing bank bridges a need for many of our kinship families, as well as community residents.

If you ever travel and forget a piece of clothing or a personal care item, you know what a hassle – and expense – it can be to replace it when you’re out of town. Imagine now that you are a child suddenly removed from your home with little-to-no notice. Children who fall victim to abuse or neglect and must become a part of the child welfare system, are removed from their homes at any time of the day or night. This is not a planned or 9-to-5 occurrence. There is no time to think about what you’ll need, what you’ll wear, or how many days you’ll be gone. In very little time, a child typically throws whatever belongings they can into a bag and are rushed out the door.

Our clothing bank is a dignified way for families to acquire some of the clothing a child may be missing. In many instances, kinship caregivers deny themselves clothing in order to provide for the child in their care, so we also encourage them to utilize the clothing bank as well.

This brings me back to the words “clothing-bank”.  Those two words – even when preceded by the phrase “New-to-You” are not the friendliest for a family dealing with trauma and crisis.

As a strong advocate of a strength-based perspective in both my professional and personal life, I am mindful of always framing things from this viewpoint. The words “clothing bank” bring attention to something that is “wrong” instead of something that is “missing” and thus can be replaced.

We have begun the process of renaming our clothing bank the “Kinship Closet”. How many of you have ever gone into a sibling or friend’s closet to perhaps borrow something? It’s not at all unusual for a friend to give you an article of clothing they simply don’t wear any longer. When you forget to take something with you to a hotel, have you ever called down to the front desk and perhaps ask for a toothbrush or toothpaste? When these things happen, we rarely feel embarrassed.  Rather, we see it as an act of kindness and convenience.

I want our kinship families to feel dignified – never embarrassed, never as if they did something wrong. Words are powerful; what you say and how you say it matters. Language indeed creates our reality. I see “clothing-bank” as a label that contradicts hope and optimism.

Our clothing bank is closed – our kinship closet is open.

Kinship Care… It’s just right!

 “This chair is just right,” the little girl sighed.  But just as she settled down into the chair to rest, it broke into pieces!

I love how the simplest of stories can drive home an important point. Child welfare is about finding the care that is “just right” for the safety, well-being and permanency of children. Although it has made some strides, the reliance on traditional foster care is typically forced and many times “breaks into pieces”. We can never question or doubt the fact that placing a child with an unknown adult will add to their trauma.

Kinship care is not simple, but its foundations are stronger. The fit of kinship care is a more natural way for a traumatized child to begin to recover from abuse and/or neglect.

Yes, kinship care challenges the very notions of responsibility on part of the family and government. Yes, it completely defies the usual route of permanency. But, when a child is attempting to “settle down,” kinship care is the best way home.

My experiences of growing up in the system have enabled me to craft better experiences for kinship care families. We must strive on a daily basis to make it easier for children to “settle down” into kinship care families. It begins with making it easier for kinship caregivers to get foster-home licenses. When we get a driver’s license we gain sense of freedom that is empowering – the same is true with a foster-home license.

That license demonstrate a commitment to broadening the scope of services to truly allow kinship families, not just access to community-supports, but a sense of welcome into services that are proactive in providing things like child health care and supports for the relatives that are entrusted to their care.

In my book, I stated:

We should guard against making kinship care look like a traditional foster care model. It is not. The uniqueness and strengths of kinship care should be celebrated by and taught across the child welfare system at large.

We all have a need for “settling down”. We’ve all sat in many chairs and asked ourselves, “Is this one just right for me?” Children who are abused or neglected should not be constantly testing out a place to settle down when there are kin who are ready and able to make it “just right”!




Kinship Care is different than Foster Care

I am frequently asked, “Do you really think there is a big difference between foster care and Kinship Care?”  My answer is an unequivocal, “Yes!” I make my response very personal. I ask, “If tonight, sadly you were abused or neglected and had to be taken from your home, where would you want me to take you?” In all the years I have asked people this question, no one has ever responded to “a stranger’s house”. Some say grandmother, stepfather or cousin. Others answer aunt, sister or close family friend. The response is always kin.

I believe that Kinship Care is the most personal response that child welfare can use to provide for a family. It embraces the notion that family is important. It gives us our identity and our culture; in other words, kin grounds us.

Kinship Care realistically acknowledges that every family has challenges that can be overcome if they are engaged as the key decision makers in matters that affect their lives. We must assist families in using their internal GPS to find their way home.

Kinship Care is a very personal story for me. Without Kinship Care my life would have been drastically different. I chose this time to tell my story because I believe the stage has been set to motivate our country into a new wave and new consciousness of Kinship Care. In my heart, I personally know that Kinship Care can change the face of child welfare for families.