When faced with the trauma of the child welfare system removing their children, many parents prefer that their children be cared for by a family member or someone they know and trust, rather than by strangers. Research shows that children benefit from being placed with family members rather than non-relatives, and states are required by law to prioritize placement with relatives. Unfortunately, this isn’t always what happens in practice. In NYC, the child welfare agency, ACS, invested in training so that more children are placed with kin.
Here, Lavern Harry, VP Foster Care, Adoption and Preventive Services, and Nosa Omoruyi, Director Foster Parent Recruitment, Development and Support, talk about practices that have increased use of kinship care at Graham, an agency in New York City. Ms. Harry and Mr. Omoruyi discuss the rights of parents and family members, as well as some of the challenges of kinship care. They also suggest what parents can do to make it more likely that their children will — or won’t — be placed with particular family members.
Q. Is kinship care a priority for Graham? Why it is important for children who come into foster care to be with kin when possible?
Lavern Harry: Placing children with relatives is a very important goal for us. When children are placed with relatives, they typically reach permanency sooner. Around 60% of children in foster care at Graham Windham are in kinship care compared to approximately 40% across New York City and 30% statewide. Our goal at Graham is to increase to 75% in 2021. We want to ensure that children in our care are placed with a relative and can maintain a relationship with their parents and extended family until they leave foster care to permanency. The priority for us is stability for children.
Nosa Omoruyi: Children who are placed in foster care heal and do better in kinship care.
Q. Who is considered kin?
Harry: In our view, a person who had a relationship with the child prior to placement is kin. This includes relatives related through marriage, adoption, or blood. It also includes “fictive kin” — people who had a bond with the child prior to ACS involvement. For example, say my neighbor was a part of my life. When my family experienced challenges, my neighbor helped and made sure we had food and clothes. I have a relationship to them. We consider that person kin.
Children may tell us who their auntie or godmother is. If a child says to us, “This is my aunt,” that person is kin. They maybe not be related, but because they have a bond with them and feel safe with them, that person is considered kin.
Q. Do parents have a right to request or prevent a particular family member from caring for their child if their child goes into foster care?
Harry: From day one, we say to parents, “You are still the parent. You should decide who you trust in your life to care for your children.” If the parent says, “I want this person,” we will explore whether they have the supports and space needed and check that nothing in their background would put the child at risk. We have that conversation with both parents whenever possible.
We encourage parents to tell us who they want to care for their children. I would like parents to exercise this power, but when ACS is in your life and your children are being removed, it is traumatic and you’re grieving. At that moment, you may not be able to say, “This is the person I want to care for my children and this is the city they live in.” It is difficult, but it is an important decision they can make, to be involved — not to leave it up to ACS, but to tell ACS the adults they trust to care for their children and where their children can safely live temporarily. But family members also have a right to be notified that a child is placed in foster care.
When we search for kin, we make a list of people. We’ll go to the parents and say, “Here is a list of relatives.” They might say, “Please don’t place my children with Uncle John because A, B, C.” We understand that. We involve parents and encourage them to share information.
We also ask children, “Who would you like to live with?” At times, they give us names and phone numbers. Teenagers may say, “I don’t want to go to that home. I want to go to this family.” We respect that. We always start with the question, “What is in the best interest of the child?” We also ask, “Who does the child feel is the best person to care for them?”
We believe children should stay with their relatives when it is safe. Not all relatives are prepared to care for children. Searching for kin is not easy. They’re all across the country and in other countries.
A relative who lives somewhere else may come to New York if they can. We set up visits before setting up placements. If we know one of our teens has a relationship with an aunt in Georgia, we can make sure the home is safe for a child and send them there.
Teenagers often aren’t interested in going to folks they don’t know, even if they’re family. Then, we might say, “What about visiting or doing an introduction by phone or Zoom?” A connection doesn’t always have to involve living together. It can be visiting.
Omoruyi: Before a decision is made, we ask parents if they know the family member and about their thoughts on the potential kinship placement. We have a continuous conversation about where we are in the process and the next steps. Sometimes the parent doesn’t want their family to know what is going on.
Harry: It is challenging when there is conflict between parents and other family members. That sometimes prevents parents from sharing information. Sometimes when we explore relatives, the parent will say, “I don’t want my children associated with them at all because there is some history there.”
Many families need mediation when conflict arises. Our agency works with the family when we encounter conflict. It can take time to work with each side to meet halfway and have a respectful relationship. At times, family members make abuse or neglect reports against other family members. That creates animosity. We assist families and address situations on a case-by-case basis.
Omoruyi: Graham has a clinician who can speak to families and try to bridge the gap when there are struggles.
Q. If a parent is incarcerated, does it affect their right to be involved with discussions and decisions about kinship care?
Harry: No. Parents are parents regardless of where they are or live. Incarcerated parents email us about aunties and uncles and we explore them.
Q. What are family members’ rights when a relative child is placed in foster care?
Harry: They have the right to be notified. The ACS team does an initial search and their goal is to place children with kin immediately. They may encounter challenges. Sometimes the kin they find is not legally allowed to care for the child or they may have to place the child in a non-kinship home so that the child can maintain their school and services.
Omoruyi: Once we complete an intake, our kin finder has 24-48 hours to conduct a search. Our search continues right away from where ACS’s search stops.
Once a potential kinship caregiver is identified, a kinship exploration meeting is scheduled within 24 hours. In that meeting, we come up with a plan for who is going to do what by when. We send the plan to everyone who was in the meeting.
If kin are not able to be a caregiver, we explore what else they can offer. Can they visit or do a video visit? Can they be involved with what is going on with the child? Do they know of other family members who could care for the child?
If we cannot find kin to care for the child, we will go through the list again after one month. We check in about where we are in the process, follow up and continue to search.
Q. How do you make parents aware of kinship as an option?
Harry: It is an ongoing conversation with parents beginning the first time we meet.
The worker introduces themselves, gets to know the parent and takes time to complete a genogram, which is basically a family tree. This helps the worker get an understanding of who is in the parents’ network and who family members are.
The worker will ask, “Who do you trust? Can they care for your children?” If the parent says, “No”, the worker will ask, “Why not?” If the parent says, “I lived with her and she abused me,” we will not explore that person.
The parent may say, “I don’t trust anyone.” We ask, “If you needed to go to the emergency room and couldn’t take your children, who would you call?” We may ask if we can contact that person.
Q. How does kinship care impact reunification?
Harry: We want children to go home. We want to partner with parents and families early on to work on getting children home. Children cared for by relatives often return home more quickly. Depending on the situation, many times when children are placed with kin, the parents can visit in the home and can speak to their children on a daily basis.
But sometimes, it can keep children in care longer because of the relationship that exists with family members. At times, because children are with kin, a parent may not actively engage and plan. When that occurs, we have to explore another permanency option such as kinship guardianship or adoption.
Q. How has Graham worked to make it more likely that children who go into care will be placed with family members instead of stranger foster care?
Harry: When children are placed with Graham, we make it a priority to look for relatives beginning day one. Two years ago, through funding from ACS, Graham had the opportunity to hire a home finder who specializes in working with kin. If a child is placed with Graham and is in a non-kinship placement, our home finder specialist’s main job is to search for a relative.
We also have a private investigator. If the specialist encounters challenges finding kin, we call the investigator for assistance and they do a wider search.
Omoruyi: We also have an internal process for continuing to look for kin for children who have been in foster care for over 6 months and are not with relatives.
Harry: We continuously search for paternal and maternal relatives, tracking down all leads and speaking with parents. Additionally, we work with Wendy’s Wonderful Kids recruiters to find relatives to connect with children and youth who have been in foster care for a long time and are not in a permanent home.
Every 6 months, we review cases for children who have been in care 6 months or more. We have an internal conference about the direction it should go in toward permanency. We continue the discussion with parents, foster parents and attorneys.
Q. What are the requirements for kinship caregivers?
Omoruyi: The requirements for kinship foster parents are a little different from those for foster parents. The training requirement for kin is more limited. We can place children in a kinship home while the home is still in the process of becoming licensed. We can also make allowances to some regulations. For example, there is more flexibility around the space the child can stay in. Or, if a potential kinship caregiver had an ACS case 10 years ago because of something like educational neglect, we can still consider them. We wouldn’t immediately rule them out, whereas we would if they applied to be a foster parent. We look at the narrative and circumstances meticulously and would not make a decision simply based on an indicated case.
Q. What supports are available to kinship caregivers?
Omoruyi: We provide support throughout the process to make the transition easier. We tell caregivers what they’re entitled to and provide the necessary assistance, such as furniture, a car seat and stroller, so it is not a burden for them. We also have a monthly workshop for kinship providers to provide them with the skills and tools they need to care for the child.
Harry: When a child is placed with a kinship caregiver, we call the following morning to see how the night went. For many of our kinship grandparents, aunts and uncles, this was not part of their plan. A grandmother who just retired may now be caring for 3 grandchildren. Some relatives struggle with putting their personal plans on hold, so we want to support them. It is overwhelming and intense to navigate the child welfare system, so we help them along the way. If they are still working parents and need daycare, we’ll attend to it. Financial support for kinship caregivers lasts until the child is 21, depending on the child.
Q. What is KinGAP and what are the requirements?
Harry: KinGAP is a form of permanency when children are not on track to return home. For us to consider legal guardianship, the child must reside with the kin for 6 months or more, and the home must have been licensed for 6 or more months.
Parents do not have to consent to kinship guardianship. If parents are not in agreement with kinship guardianship, there is a trial in court and parents can voice why they are not in support. That decision is ultimately made by the judge.
Q. City Council recently cut funding for support for kinship caregivers. How will this affect kinship care at Graham?
Harry: At Graham, we are committed to this work so that children don’t linger in foster care. We are not going to change our practice because funding was cut. We will move forward with our commitment with aggressiveness to ensure that children are placed with relatives whenever safe to do so.
Omoruyi: Graham is committed to the work; however, funding is needed to help us to continue to strengthen our work. We hope it will be reinstated.