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School awarded nearly $1.7 million from The Duke Endowment to address kinship care

Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson, Ph.D.
UNC School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

by Susan White

UNC School of Social Work has been awarded a nearly $1.7 million grant from The Duke Endowment for a multi-phase project that aims to prevent child maltreatment and strengthen support for kinship caregivers raising children with special health care needs.

The five-year intervention study, known as KinCarolina, will fund a collaborative initiative involving researchers at UNC and the University of South Carolina as well as public and private partner agencies, including Kindred Hearts of South Carolina, which will serve as the project’s intervention site. Other partners include the South Carolina Department of Aging, the Carolina Family Engagement Center, Sisters of Charity Foundation, Disability Rights South Carolina and Family Connection South Carolina.

UNC School of Social Work Dean Ramona Denby-Brinson, a preeminent national expert in culturally adapted child welfare services and a leading scholar in the area of kinship care, is the study’s principal investigator. Two other UNC social work researchers, Angela Tobin and Amanda Klein-Cox, will lend their expertise to implement the study. Denby-Brinson, Tobin, Klein-Cox, and USC College of Social Work Assistant Professor Yanfeng Xu, co-PI, will collaborate with Kindred Hearts Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer Kimberly Janha and guide the project’s research team, which includes nationally known child welfare scholars from Arizona State University, Catholic University of America and The Ohio State University.

As proposed, the intervention will focus on families who are often overlooked, especially relative caregivers, such as grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles who are more likely to informally take in a relative’s children with special health care needs. In these cases, family members informally make arrangements with relatives — who research has shown are more likely to be people of color, female, single and from under-resourced communities — for their care of their children.

Limited data exists on the number of families across the country raising children through these kinds of informal arrangements. However, estimates suggest that such placements are 19 times higher than formal foster care placements through state departments of child welfare. Although research has shown that children in foster care often find more stability and avoid re-living traumatic experiences when placed into the home of a relative, research also has shown that children with special health care needs who are informally placed with kin may struggle in ways that children who are placed in licensed foster care homes do not.

Specifically, family members who are not legally licensed as foster parents do not automatically qualify for state and federal support, training or any other assistance. Without access to such needed resources and support, the research is also clear — children under the informal care of relatives are less likely to obtain special education services and are more likely to have worse well-being and placement outcomes. Moreover, in the Carolinas, research has shown that these children have significantly higher placement instability and rates of removal for neglect than national averages, Denby-Brinson noted.

“Kinship families informally raising children with physical, developmental, neurological or mental and behavioral health issues deserve more support and attention, especially because many of the children in their care have complex and special needs and can experience vulnerabilities that produce unique challenges for kinship caregivers,” Denby-Brinson said.

With KinCarolina, researchers aim to strengthen support for these informal caregivers using an evidence-based, culturally responsive program that will help to improve overall outcomes for children with special health care needs in relatives’ homes.

“We know that when we build caregivers’ parental capacity, the children in their care thrive and experience positive outcomes,” Denby-Brinson said.

South Carolina was selected as the pilot site for the project, not only because of the joint expertise of the UNC and USC researchers but because the child welfare system already prioritizes relative placements for children in the state. Moreover, in a recent study, researchers also found that the needs of families raising relatives’ children in South Carolina are particularly pronounced because so many caregivers receive no formal support and of those who do, less than half receive financial assistance.

The Duke Endowment funded intervention is another example of the organization’s sustained and significant investment in supporting children and families across the Carolinas, Denby-Brinson noted. The KinCarolina project, which launched in May, will focus on strengthening families who care for relatives’ children by offering them direct support, including pairing them with trained peers with similar lived experiences who can help kinship families capitalize on their own strengths around resilience. Caregivers will also participate in trainings to learn more about a child’s diagnosis, their legal rights, and strategies for navigating government systems and community organizations serving children and families. Other family activities will promote caregiver-child attachment and skill building tools to foster more positive relationships in the home.

The intervention will also promote change at the agency level to ensure that child and family serving systems, including schools, public health, juvenile justice, and community organizations understand how to work better together to coordinate care for kinship families, Denby-Brinson said.

“While it is important that we provide efficacious, micro-level interventions for children and caregivers, we can’t stop there,” she said. “We know that interventions such as peer-to-peer support are effective with kinship caregiver populations, but we also need coordination among systems of care and policies that are aligned. So we are excited about the work that this project will do at the micro and macro levels.”

As the KinCarolina team works over the next six to 12 months to develop and pilot the intervention, ensuring that community members are involved across all phases of the project will be critical, Denby-Brinson added. Having a current or former kinship caregiver who understands firsthand what families face serve on the project’s community advisory board will further guide the intervention’s success, she said.

“There’s a popular refrain used by disability and child rights activists: It is ‘nothing about us without us.’ We are guided in this work by that exhortation and our respect for kinship caregivers who truly are the experts,” Denby-Brinson said. “It is important to us that the kinship caregivers and local communities are positioned to drive decision making in all aspects of the intervention and study.”