by Trey Rabun
(This article originally appeared on Amara’s website and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
I’ve had the privilege of working within child welfare for almost 12 years now. My professional journey started in our state agency (now called the Department of Children, Youth and Families — DCYF) supporting children who were “legally free,” meaning children who the state has decided cannot safely return home and are now seeking to find forever families, typically through adoption or guardianship.
As a social work practicum student, I was able to immerse myself in the work of all aspects of child welfare including doing “ride arounds” with Child Protective Services (CPS) investigators and sitting in on intense family decision meetings. Throughout my career, I have always looked for the best ways to support kids and families in foster care, including looking at how best to support Black families caring for kids and youth in our immediate and extended families.
There will always be one family from that time who has stuck with me even after all these years.
A Black grandparent was trying to adopt their grandchild. The grandparent had a criminal history, from a crime committed decades earlier and DCYF initially refused this grandparent’s desire to care for their family member. Luckily, the social workers on the case didn’t settle for that decision and applied for a waiver. As we learned more about the criminal issue it became clear that the relative was, in fact, a victim of racial bias which led to a non-violent crime on his record. Ultimately, the waiver was granted, and we were able to move forward with the adoption. When a family member steps in, whether formally or informally, to provide short-term care with the hopes of reunification with parents, or in this case ultimately adopt a child in the family, this is called kinship care.
This family was my first introduction to kinship care within child welfare and the disparate outcomes for Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) families. While I continued to hear about kinship care and learned that DCYF always tries to place children with kin when possible, it wasn’t until years later that I started to truly understand the historical context of kinship care and the glaring inequities between the support we provide traditional foster parents, who have no prior connection to the youth and who are more often than not white, and our relative and kin placements.
Supporting Kinship Care Means Supporting Black Families
In 2016, I started an outreach initiative at Amara to increase the number of Black foster parents in order to address disproportionality and the overrepresentation of Black youth in foster care in Washington state. I heard stories of distrust of a system that has done so much to damage the Black family and skepticism as to why they would want to “join” that system as a foster parent. I heard stories of how the Black community has been taking in our kin for years when the parents are unable to care for their children and questioning why we need a “system” to remove children from their family for safety when we’ve already been doing this for generations. Lastly, I spoke with several relatives who were caring for youth in the foster care system and felt deep frustration at the lack of information and support they receive. For example, most families were unaware that while they aren’t required to become a licensed foster home to care for their family member, should they pursue licensure the monthly foster care payment they would receive in most cases would be a big financial boost to help care for the youth.
With all of these experiences and the knowledge I’d gained from listening to and talking with Black families caring for family members, I began to really look into kinship care within the context of the child welfare system. I looked at all the research detailing how youth fare better in kinship care in key areas including mental health and educational outcomes. It made me wonder: Why weren’t we truly prioritizing these families as placement options and then supporting them at the same level as foster parents? Yes, Washington state does better than most in terms of numbers of foster youth placed in kinship care (currently 45% of the youth in King County are placed in a kinship home), but these families have low rates of being licensed (again, being licensed would mean families would receive financial assistance to help care for the children in their care) and there isn’t a program to provide them with wraparound supports to navigate the complicated foster care process and assist in finding childcare, parenting supports, and other needed resources, like Amara and so many other private agencies do for foster parents.
Kinship Care Is Personal
Another impetus in my journey to center kinship care is personal. My husband and I were foster parents for nearly four years and are now adoptive dads to our 6-year-old son who joined our home as a waddling toddler. His foster care journey is his own to share, but I will share that our son was in kinship care before coming to live with us. As I learned more about the reasons why he had to leave that family member’s home, I couldn’t help but wonder if that arrangement could’ve been preserved through more tangible resources and supports to navigate foster-care bureaucracy. We’re very fortunate to have a relationship with our son’s relative and several other members of his family so our son never had to completely lose his connections to his family and roots, but sadly not all foster-care-adoption stories end this way.
The culmination in my desire to move forward in creating a program to support kinship families came after a visit to A Second Chance, Inc. in Pittsburgh. This organization works with every kinship family in their county and has an exceptional rate of licensing these families and providing wraparound supports and resources for them. My biggest takeaway from this visit was their true belief in family. It sounds simple, but they stressed that to serve kinship families, you must believe they matter and that they can care for their kin.
There are a lot of misconceptions about and bias toward kinship families, including the idea that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” and so it’s better to remove a child from a family system that may be struggling instead of acknowledging that with supports we can help keep that family together. The other is to “license in” and not “out.” In other words, instead of automatically stopping the process of licensing a family member to care for a child in the family because at initial glance a family member can’t meet a certain requirement or shows some hesitancy to become licensed, you instead “lean into” the family to find ways to support, motivate, and think creatively to overcome barriers like moving bedroom configurations or using concrete good-type funds to purchase things like fire extinguishers and car seats.
Kinship Care Can Help Transform the System
We know kids do best if they can stay in their own families and communities, and we need a child welfare system that reflects that notion. That starts with doing what we can to prevent children from entering foster care in the first place through family preservation efforts and supporting the huge number of kin who step up to care for children before CPS gets involved. If CPS must get involved, every effort must be made to place children with a relative or someone with a previous relationship like a teacher or religious community member. Furthermore, we need to equitably support these families as we do foster parents without making them jump through so many hoops.
The recent passage of Washington state’s SB 5151 is a step in the right direction. This bill will make it easier for family members to get licensed as a kinship caregiver to take care of a child or youth in their family. It allows the DCYF to issue a child-specific license to a relative, or a suitable person, who becomes licensed for placement of a specific child and that child’s siblings or relatives in the department’s care. As a former foster parent, I hope I see a day where foster parents are only used after we’ve exhausted every other option for caregiving and/or are reserved for those youth with complex needs that can best be served by the small set of foster homes who are highly skilled in parenting children with significant needs.
I am inspired to lead Amara’s new efforts to implement a kinship program. As an organization that has always responded to community need when it comes to working with kids and families, Amara strives to fill in the gaps within child welfare. We have recently shifted our mission and vision to include not only improving long-term outcomes for kids and families impacted by foster care and adoption but also centering racial equity. I look forward to the continued work of transforming our child welfare system into one that better cares for the mental, emotional, physical, and cultural well-being of all kids and families, through kinship care.
Trey Rabun is the associate director of Kinship and Community Services at Amara.
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