By Nancy Toscano
Virginia takes pride in our capacity to provide for our children. Recent studies place the commonwealth as sixth in the nation for educational attainment, 11th for children’s economic wellbeing and 14th for children’s overall wellbeing. Such rankings reflect a collective commitment to ensuring that Virginia’s future is strong.
But there is one area of social services in which the commonwealth is not living up to that commitment. Virginia ranks dead last in kinship care, an attractive and too-often overlooked alternative to foster care.
In Virginia, foster care has become the default option. While those of us on the front lines of the foster care ecosystem work hard to see that children are receiving a safe and loving environment, treating it as an almost exclusive solution is putting severe strain on an already overtaxed system. Some 5,500 children throughout the commonwealth are currently in foster care, with another 1,700 awaiting a qualified and trained foster family to take them in. Nationally, the number of foster children in the country grew by 11 percent in the five years leading up to 2012 when there were 441,000 children in foster care.
In most states, kinship care — care options that involve the children’s extended family, such as aunts and uncles, grand-parents or cousins — is the preferred first option, just as it had been before a more formal foster care system began to take root in the 19th century. As kinship care faded in popularity over the decades to follow, many of its inherent benefits waned as well. Recent research tells us that kinship care has numerous long-term positives for the children, including reduced trauma and fewer behavioral problems. Maintaining familial and cultural ties also leads to greater social and emotional wellbeing. And there is a decreased likelihood that children will need psychotropic medications and an increased chance that they will be placed in the same home as their siblings.
The value of kinship care has even been recognized at the federal level. The Families First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) of 2018 was one of the most extensive overhauls of the foster care system in four decades. Among other things, FFPSA prioritizes family preservation and allocates money for foster care prevention services.
Then there are the systemic advantages of kinship care, particularly in the way that it can ease the burden on the foster care infrastructure. Raising the viability of kinship care not only will reduce the need to recruit and train foster families, but it also would provide a more cost-effective alternative to the current foster care system.
Despite these benefits, why is Virginia dramatically lagging in its embrace of kinship care? It’s a question without an easy answer, especially when you consider the broad recognition of the benefits of kinship care among those working in foster care. In 2018, the national average among all states for kinship placements was 32 percent. In other words, almost one-third of children throughout the country whose situations required placing them in another home went to a relative.
In Virginia, kinship care placements are barely on the radar. Just 6 percent of children who need new homes are taken in by extended family. Were Virginia to attain the same level as the national average, literally thousands of children could be removed from the state’s foster care rolls. It would be nothing short of a transformation.
So, how can we do better? How do we make kinship care a higher priority when assessing a child’s options? To truly drive widespread, system change, all of us have to work together — federal and state legislators, local departments of social services, private providers, communities and families. Kinship care has momentum in Virginia, but many hurdles are still ahead, like perception barriers, which stem from an intrinsic bias against relatives. There’s an underlying assumption, for example, that the child’s relatives are likely to suffer from many of the same shortcomings as the child’s biological parent.
Then there are simply systemic issues, working through a system weighted toward traditional foster care.
As policymakers and legislators at the state and federal levels seek to find new solutions to addressing many of the challenges of the current foster care system, these are certainly issues that merit discussion.
At United Methodist Family Services, we relentlessly pursue solutions and have long held a kin-first philosophy. We believe families belong together, and many of our programs focus on family preservation. Our Intensive Recruitment program places youth with kin, and several of our staff have been trained in Traditions of Caring, a model for supporting kinship caregivers. We also are working with local departments of social services and other community partners to bring UMFS’ Kinship Treatment Foster Care to the forefront. This program empowers kin so they can support youth and preserve healthy family connections, even if the youth is not living with them.
UMFS, among the largest foster care providers in the commonwealth, recognizes the potential that kinship care has in transforming foster care in Virginia. While it is by no means a panacea to the challenges inherent in a complex system, kinship care holds the promise of not only providing better outcomes for the children but in relieving considerable burdens on a system that is teetering on the breaking point.
Can kinship care become a more viable option in Virginia? We think so, and UMFS is prepared to help do our part. Our staff is trained in the kinship model, including recruitment methods that focus on finding suitable extended family, and we applaud the recent support from the commonwealth, which is providing $16 million over two years to relatives of children who have been diverted from foster care to kinship care.
Virginia is poised to benefit greatly through a more robust commitment to kinship care. But the greatest benefit will be to the children themselves.
Nancy Toscano is the chief operating officer at United Methodist Family Services in Richmond and president & CEO elect. “The Case for Kinship Care” can be downloaded at UMFS.org/kinship.