Today, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released a new policy report on kinship care, Stepping up for Kids: What
Governments and Communities Should Do to Support Kinship Families. Kinship care is the age-old tradition of relatives and close family friends caring for children when their parents are unable to do so. These arrangements often arise informally, with families stepping in to ensure children are safe and well cared for in the wake of a whole host of challenges – from military service, to mental health challenges, to domestic violence, and incarceration. When some of these same situations result in a child’s placement in the child welfare system, kinship care is federally recognized as a preferred placement for children, and kinship care was home to about 22% of Nebraska’s foster youth in 2010.
While the practice of kinship care may be old, the numbers of children in kinship care are growing faster than ever. In the past decade, there’s been an 18% increase in kinship care nationally and a 27% increase in kinship care in Nebraska. This is a good thing for the 14,000 Nebraska children who live with kin. Children suffering from the trauma of parental separation need and deserve family and cultural ties and the stability and love that kinship care bring. The only problem is that society hasn’t stepped up to support kinship families the way we need to, nor have we adequately encouraged the use of kinship care.
Kinship care givers are more likely to be single, elderly, in poor health, and living in poverty, yet few receive the help to provide for their children’s needs despite their eligibility for a number of public benefit programs. They often lack the legal authority to help make basic health care and educational decisions for children in their care. Additionally, strict licensure requirements and a lack of kinship care-specific supports can discourage placement with a family member or close family friend when a child comes into the child welfare system, despite the fact that these placements are more stable and more likely to lead to permanency.
So what can and should we do, as Nebraskans, to ensure the stability and strength of relatives and friends who step up for the vulnerable children in their care? The Annie E. Casey Report has some excellent suggestions:
- Increase the financial stability of kinship families. We need to ensure kinship families access the benefits for which they are eligible. We also need to make sure that policies and use of public benefits take the unique needs of kinship families into account.
- Strengthen kinship care involved in the child welfare system. While we recognize kinship care as a preferred child welfare placement, there are still plenty of barriers to increasing the number of children served by kinship care. Family finding and engagement is often slow to occur. Licensure standards often do not have enough flexibility for kin, meaning they are either unable to take the child or receive lower payments.Voluntary placements with kin often deny them benefits and support they would have if the case was court-involved.
- Enhance other community-based and government responses for kinship care. From allowing kin to sign medical and educational consent forms, to housing programs that take the needs of kinship families into account, to affordable legal representation, communities and governments have more coordination to do. Kinship families will benefit from streamlined, coordinated services and the ability to make key decisions for the children in their care.