When Dana Murdock’s newborn niece Dahlia entered Hawaii’s foster care system in 2016, she flew from Arkansas to Hawaii as quickly as possible. Having aged out of the child welfare system herself, Murdock knew she couldn’t let her sister’s child languish in the system, and she couldn’t blame her sister for spiraling into drug addiction and losing Dahlia to foster care.
“My little sister was my whole world,” Murdock said. “I did everything I could for her. I can’t blame her for turning out the way she did, but I can make sure that Dahlia can hear about her mom.”
Murdock set up residence on Maui as she began working to get custody of her niece. Within two weeks of her arrival, Murdock was outfitted to take in the newborn who had spent several weeks in the hospital and shortly thereafter Dahlia came to live with her.
“I didn’t realize at the time how bad my sister was,” Murdock said. “I thought there might be a chance she’d be able to do what she needed to do.”
Murdock’s story has become a more common scenario in the past decade as the philosophy that relatives are the preferred placement for foster youth was embedded in federal policy.
Each state varies as far as licensing for relative caregivers and reimbursement payments, but as the number of kids in care continues to grow, so does the reliance on relative caregivers. The number of children placed with relatives increased from 113,275 in 2008 to 127,821 in 2015, according to AFCARS data.
Since the enactment of The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008, states have had greater access to funding to help pay kinship caregivers who step up. It allows states to tap federal Title IV-E funds, which is a foster care funding stream provided through the Social Security Act, to pay licensed kinship providers who assume legal guardianship of children. Other policy and legislative changes dating back to welfare reform in 1996 have helped to streamline licensing requirements and funding streams for relative caregivers.
In the same time frame, changes going on at the national level and more attention being drawn to studies showed kids fared better if they were raised by relatives rather than entering foster care. In many cases they experienced fewer moves and had fewer behavioral problems.
In part, those studies led to other additions in the Fostering Connections Act. According to the Act, which was signed into law in 2008, states must make due diligence efforts to contact adult relatives of a child within 30 days of the child entering the foster care system.
“Getting relatives identified early on can be huge for kids to get early and stable placements with relatives,” said Ana Beltran, special advisor for Generations United, a national advocacy program for intergenerational programs. “Fostering Connections Act gave states the option of a Guardianship Assistance Program (GAP) to allow kids to exit foster care with a relative. Since 2008, 35 states, D.C. and eight tribes have taken that option.”
Following are the stories of a few states that have managed to significantly grow the role of relatives in their foster care system.
Legislation, Culture Shifts Garner Big Results in Nebraska
Since 2012, Nebraska has lost nearly a third of its non-relative foster care capacity. But it has more than made up for that with a growing reliance on kin.
In 2012, just 19 percent of Nebraska’s foster youth lived with relatives, according to federal data. This year, state officials said, nearly two-thirds of the state’s foster youth live with kin.
Not long ago, Nebraska had one of the lowest foster care reimbursement rates in the nation and the highest rates of children in out-of-home care. After failing to meet all seven of the safety, permanency and well-being outcomes during its first federal Child and Family Services Review (CFSR) in 2007, and a lawsuit filed by Children’s Rights and the Nebraska Appleseed Center for Law in the Public Interest, Nebraska attempted to fix its problems through privatization of the foster care system.
Privatization hit several snags early on, with one of the private agencies going bankrupt, and another ending its contract and a third losing its contract. Nebraska’s child welfare system was struggling, forcing the state’s lawmakers to address the issue head-on.
In 2012, the state implemented the National Council on Crime and Delinquency’s Structured Decision Making model, to help guide caseworkers as they made decisions about whether to bring kids into the foster care system in the first place. The change from the Nebraska Safety Intervention System was due in part to the high rate of removal of children from families into foster care placements. According to National Coalition for Child Protection Reform (NCCPR) data, Nebraska’s rate of removal was 7.5 per 1,000 children in 2010. In 2015, that rate of removal had decreased to 5.05 per 1,000.
Just two years later, the state began implementing Kevin Campbell’s Family Finding model, which provides strategies to locate and engage relatives of children in the child welfare system, to help the state identify relative caregivers when a child first enters foster care. Legislation passed in 2013 broadened the definition of kinship to include fictive kin, or close friends, teachers and other individuals with close connections to the child. Then legislation passed in 2015 helped the state access more funding for the Family Finding program, which the state now has in place in every jurisdiction.
At present, around 60 percent of Nebraska foster youth live with a relative or with fictive kin, said Stacy Scholten, administrator of services and interstate compact for Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services.
“That’s been a huge culture change for our state in how we look at families,” Scholten said. “It changes the culture of the staff and the mindset. It’s a matter of being able to identify those family members and allowing people to define who their family is.”
Scholten gives credit to both the implementation of Family Finding and the legislative changes broadening the definition of kin. The state stands out in how it supports licensed and non-licensed relative caregivers, providing the same board reimbursement rate for relative caregivers, regardless of whether they’re licensed or non-licensed.
“They receive the same rate based on what that child needs,” said Nanette Simmons, a state foster care administrator. “It’s best for a child to be placed with a relative or someone known to them. Adding another child or two or three is a burden financially.”
In addition to all the legislative and regulatory changes, the state has implemented some additional training and supports for foster and kinship families through a contract with the Nebraska Foster and Adoptive Parent Association (NFAPA). The organization recently created a training program specifically for relative caregivers to provide information on managing behaviors, the impact of trauma on children, and other issues unique to raising children from abuse and neglect backgrounds. In many communities, NFAPA also have mentoring and support groups for foster and kinship families.
Kin Decreases Number of Kids in Care
The number of kids in Colorado’s foster care system dropped from 6,003 in 2012 to 4,968 in 2017. That decrease in kids is something that the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) attributes in part to the five-year federal waiver that allowed flexibility in how Colorado spent funds from Title IV-E, the federal program that generally reimburses states for foster care costs.
The waiver project includes five areas of focus: family engagement meetings, kinship supports, permanency roundtables and trauma-informed screening or assessments and trauma-informed treatment.
“Kinship care is our first choice,” said Jeannie Berzinskas, kinship care and ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act) program administrator. “We’ve had that cultural shift because research shows they do better with kin. Now we emphasize finding family from the very beginning.”
By focusing on these areas for the past five years, Berzinskas said fewer children have entered into the system.
“In many of these instances, the family is able to work out an arrangement with the use of a safety plan, making a removal and out-of-home care unnecessary,” said Berzinskas in an email. “In situations where a removal is necessary and a child/youth is placed with kin, those are counted in our out-of-home/foster care numbers. We’re keeping kids in the lowest level of care possible. Kids are gaining permanency within familial connections.”
Several counties in the state have hired kinship specific caseworkers to work with relative caregivers to help them navigate the various aspects of the child welfare system and public assistance program. Kinship Supports Intervention includes system navigation, a kinship worker, goods (such as clothing and furniture to meet the child’s needs) and financial assistance.
“For kin, it’s not a decision they thought about,” Berzinskas said. “They’re not necessarily prepared. Being able to support kin is often a make it or break it for placement.”
Licensed relative caregivers receive the same reimbursement rate that foster parents receive. But the majority of relatives are non-licensed and can only seek assistance through welfare programs. According to 2016 state data, Colorado had 361 children in paid kinship families and another 1,317 in non-paid, non-licensed kinship families. Relative caregivers must access other funding avenues such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and support programs like Women, Infants and Children (WIC), that provides supplemental foods, health care referrals and nutrition education for low-income women and children. Both licensed and non-licensed kinship families qualify for kinship intervention programs as well as county-specific support groups and access to the state’s Kinship Connection website.
Since the waiver was put into place, Colorado has passed legislation that expanded the definition of kinship caregivers, prioritized relative placements and eased licensing requirements for kin.
While the final look at the impacts of the waiver aren’t complete, the state is seeing the number of days kids are in kinship care increase; a decrease in the number of kids in congregate care; and a decrease in the number of days kids spend in foster care, according to the state’s Kinship Supports Intervention Fact Sheet. Berzinskas said the state prefers that youth spend fewer days in the system, but if they are placed into care, that they be with family or people they have a significant relationship with.
When families have access to the multiple interventions identified by the waiver, children receive better outcomes, according to DHS.
“Children whose families received both kinship supports and family engagement were more likely to reunify with their parents than children in cases that received only kinship supports,” according to the state’s fact sheet.
The state’s growing reliance on relatives has not completely masked a decreasing supply of other foster homes. According to a recent report by the Chronicle, Colorado has lost 595 licensed beds since 2012.
The state launched a campaign in late October to start recruiting more foster families. The goal is to recruit an additional 1,000 foster families by 2019, especially parents who identify as American Indian, Hispanic, black or LGBTQ.
“We can’t allow so many Colorado children to end the day without a safe place to sleep,” said Luis Guzman, acting director of the DHS Office of Children, Youth and Families in a statement about the campaign. “We need adults from all communities and backgrounds to step up and help our kids.”
Colorado is one of several states executing Title IV-E Child Welfare Demonstration Projects, but one of only a few that specifically addresses kinship supports in its plan. The waiver expires in June of 2018 with the possibility of extending it for one additional year.
“The purpose of the IV-E Waiver Kinship Supports Intervention was to build an infrastructure for supporting kinship families,” Berzinskas said. “Though funding sources may change, the infrastructure will remain intact and we will support the county departments continuing to support kin through the use of kinship workers, the Kinship Needs Assessment tool, benefits navigation, etc.”
It’s Always Been About Family
With 45 percent of the state’s kids in foster care placed with kin, Hawaii is one of the top states in terms of relative caregiver placements. Only three other states came close according to 2015 AFCARS data – Florida with 45 percent and Montana and Arizona with 47 percent each. Hawaii has consistently had a high percentage of kids placed with kin, well into the 40 percent range since 2008.
“We are among the highest performing states in the country consistently,” said Rachel Thorburn, assistant program administrator for Hawaii Department of Human Services Child Welfare Branch. “It has a lot to do with Hawaii’s culture and value of family. In our statutes it talks about the importance of relative placements.”
For roughly 20 years the state has operated the family decision-making model of Ohana Conferencing, which brings families together with extended family, child welfare services, service providers and other support system members to work together on meeting a child’s needs. Operated by private contractor EPIC ‘Ohana, Inc., sometimes the Ohana Conferencing can help a child avoid entering the child welfare system, as well as move a child to permanency with a kinship placement or reunification.
In addition to the Ohana Conferencing, EPIC ‘Ohana is contracted by the state to do family finding.
“We’ve created a process that we can do it (child-specific licensing) the same day so it can be the first placement,” Thorburn said. “It (family finding) happens more timely and comprehensively than if we did it in-house.”
Part of the process includes a criminal background check, paperwork, discussion of expectations and a number of other items. From there, relative caregivers are required to complete the licensing process the same as foster parents. There is some flexibility in the time frame to complete the training and DHS works to overcome any barriers with the relative caregiver in receiving that licensing.
Despite Hawaii’s efforts to place children with relative caregivers whenever possible, the state is currently experiencing challenges in overcoming the increased number of kids coming into care.
Thorburn attributes much of the increase in the number of kids coming into care to drug abuse. As meth use on the islands has increased, she said it’s led to kids staying in care longer and more kids entering the system.
“Substance use is something you can’t resolve quickly,” Thorburn said.
For Dana Murdock, whose experience we shared earlier in the story, substance abuse wasn’t something her sister was able to overcome. As time progressed, Murdock began to understand that her sister would most likely not be able to gain custody of her Dahlia. According to Hawaiian regulations, Murdock became a licensed caregiver and continued to care for her niece for until she was able to legally adopt her earlier this year.
“We spent 11 months in Hawaii,” Murdock said. “They (the state) did a very thorough look at all the family members. We fell in love with the caseworkers and the team. The entire foster care team were my support. Once I was licensed, they back dated the payments. They did a thorough job of meeting our needs. Hawaii did a stand-up job.”
Today, Murdock lives in Arkansas, but said she hopes to move to Hawaii someday to become a foster parent for the state.