In North Carolina, of the nearly 8,300 children in foster care, 25% are in homes where kin (a relative or non-relative family member) have willingly agreed to care for them. However, of this percentage, less than 6%, are living in households where adults have been legally licensed as foster parents. For MSW students Angela Krider, Erin Adams, Alecia Mitiguy and Katie Pollard, the numbers highlight a serious concern, including a need to reform the state’s foster care system.
Without a license, kinship caregivers in the state do not automatically qualify for state and federal support, training or any other assistance. That means relatives and non-relative family members are being called upon and stepping forward to care for children still in the legal custody of the state but without any offer of financial help.
As child protective services interns in various counties last year, these students saw first-hand the challenges that many of these families face.
“I remember a family I worked with – an aunt who was struggling to take care of her eight-year-old nephew alongside raising her own two children,” recalled Krider, who along with Adams, Mitiguy and Pollard are all Child Welfare Education Collaborative scholars. “Her life literally changed overnight. Despite working a full-time job and doing all she could to ensure her nephew felt loved and had stability, economic hardship was very real. It just didn’t make any sense to me why these families are not getting any money for the same expectations as foster parents.” More troubling, the students agreed, are the children coming from experiences of neglect and abuse and now living with kinship caretakers who are under-equipped to help them through their trauma. Further, without access to supportive networks or education on how the foster care system works, many kinship caretakers are forced to navigate the system on their own. From their classes and research, the students knew that children placed with a kinship provider are less likely to be moved from home to home, offering youth needed stability that can help mitigate potential emotional and psychological risks. So, they wondered, ‘Why do families caring for relative children continue to lack financial, educational and community support?’
Over the past year and with guidance from their professor Mark Testa, a nationally known expert in child welfare, foster care and kinship care, these students have sought to answer these questions and to better understand what’s needed to create a more kinship-centered system in North Carolina.
Last March, the students launched a research initiative with a focus on interviewing child welfare social workers from the mountains to the coast. Although counties must follow general state guidelines around kinship care, the students quickly learned that agencies have their own broad standards of practice. To get a clearer picture of what was happening in the state around kinship placement and foster care licensing, the students decided to contact all 100 counties to get their input. Forty-three agreed to work with the research team, and many others have continued to express interest in the project.
With financial support from Testa, the students spent most of the summer traveling to as many counties as they could fit into their schedules to speak with representatives and supervisors from foster care, licensing, adoptions/permanency planning, in-home services, and investigations’ units.
“We really wanted to talk to the people on the ground because as we had discussed in class, there can be this disconnect between people who create policy and the people who do the work,” Adams said. “We wanted to acknowledge that these agencies really are the experts. And overwhelmingly, everybody we spoke with said they were so glad that we were talking about this. The huge takeaway was that everyone agreed we can’t keep doing things the same way.”
The counties also had a variety of ideas for improving the system, Mitiguy added. “When we asked them the standard policy questions like, ‘What are the sleeping requirements for placing children in kinship care – separate beds? separate rooms?’ The majority of counties answered pretty typically the same way, which is good because they are doing what they are supposed to do.
“But on the more open-ended questions, where we asked for their voice and what they would like for us to say to help support their perspective of what kinship care looks like in their county, their answers were all over the place.”
After months of interviews and collecting and assessing data, the students formally presented their findings last month to state and county representatives and to key officials with foster care licensing organizations at the state’s first Kinship Care Summit in Greensboro. Children’s Home Society of America, which has worked closely with Testa on various child welfare issues, hosted the event.
Several common themes emerged from the students’ report, including the need to recognize the importance of kinship caregivers, as well as their need to receive funding support and trauma-informed training. Additionally, the students used their time in front of state leaders to advocate for child welfare social workers in the field.
The team also recommended different steps for licensing. The current process involves 30 hours of training, interviews, and other requirements, all of which can be a significant hurdle for relative caregivers, especially for those on fixed incomes. Based on their discussions with county representatives, the students recommended that the state consider a tiered licensure model tailored specifically for kinship providers.
Testa praised the students’ interest and efforts to help improve the state’s foster care system. The research team is currently working with Ph.D. student Daniel Gibbs to publish an article.
“Their work is very important because it not only raises a number of issues that policymakers have struggled with, it has an on-the-ground-look at what local offices see as some of the challenges that relatives face in raising children who are in the custody of the state,” Testa said. “I think their work really validated that most local offices think we need to improve the way we work with relatives.
“It also adds a nice foundation for believing that it’s possible to make changes, and that these changes are supported by people who are working in the field.”
For Krider, who was raised in Hawaii and grew up with a grandmother who served as a kinship caregiver for her cousins, the work remains personal.
“Ultimately, my goal has been to not only recognize that kinship providers exist but to show that we still believe in families,” she said. “We believe that there’s healing in families and that families should be supported and empowered when they are trying to help take care of their own.”