Some moms aren’t good at taking care of their kids, says seven-year-old Charli. She opens her hands, palms upward, and shrugs: “My mom just wasn’t.” Which is why Charli and her sister have lived with their aunt Arleeta and grandmother Ginny since they were one and two.
Relatives aren’t always as graceful as Ginny and Arleeta (or more conscientious than foster caregivers) about lifting the burden of shame, guilt and anger from children abandoned by their parents. But a family member with intimate knowledge of the child’s mother or father is in a much better position to paint a calm, realistic, even loving picture of that parent, which can help kids create life stories for themselves that are intact, true and reasonably positive. This is always important. But it's especially crucial in situations where the children will probably never be reunited with their parents.
Charli, 7, with her Aunt Arleeta
Research over the last 60 years has shown that supportive, lasting personal relationships are essential for healthy human development. Child welfare agencies now prioritize kinship care over non-kinship foster care, especially for abused and neglected children. During the past decade, as states across the nation built more systematic support for kinship care, Washington has become a leader in the kin-care movement (see sidebar at right).
Once agency workers determine that a child can't safely remain with his or her parents or current guardians, they have 30 days to locate as many of the child’s relatives as possible. At a collective meeting with those relatives, caseworkers develop a care plan, which includes options for the child’s placement in a home. Any caregiver (either a relative or a stranger) must be able to offer the child safety, permanency and well-being, the three foster care goals specified in the federal Adoption and Safe Families Act (1997).
Kinship care nurtures families as well as children, says Meri Waterhouse, program manager for caregiver recruitment, retention and support at DSHS Children’s Administration. Kin-care lets kids maintain connections with their extended family, their community and often their school. Compared to children who are placed with non-kin caregivers, says Waterhouse, most kin-care kids get to stay with their siblings, avoid the disruptions of multiple placements and are reunited with their biological families faster.
One other advantage is that children being cared for by relatives can avoid the social stigma of foster care and protect their sense of self-worth in the wider world. “Kids don’t have to say ‘I’m a foster kid,’” says Waterhouse. “Instead, it’s ‘I live with my auntie,’ or ‘I live with my grandparents.’” In other words, “I belong.”
The number of Washington children currently living in kin-care settings is large and growing. It is now more than five times the 6,700 children living in non-kin foster settings. But kin-care isn’t always easy on the kin.
The blended households of many relative caregivers teeter on the thin edge of security, and the caregivers often struggle in isolation. Most are grandparents, with health problems. Many work at low-wage jobs or live on limited, fixed retirement incomes. Even the most comfortable among them face the complex challenges of raising children who have been traumatized.
Last month, in an effort to bolster community support for kinship care and the people who make it possible, the National Kinship Alliance for Children petitioned the White House to establish a national Kinship Care Month.
Kin-care has its critics. They argue that sanctioning two kinds of kinship care — formal, where caregivers are licensed by the state, and informal, where they are not — leads to a lack of coordination in services. They worry that, as the advantages of kin-care to children’s well-being grow clearer, and social-services budgets tighten, states may unduly pressure relatives to take kids into their homes as a way to cut public costs.
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