As the last of six children growing up in a small town, an “oops” baby born to older parents, I was raised by a crowd. My sisters, already in high school when I was born, were my second and third mothers.
I was surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins and “might-as-well-be” relatives who kept an eye on me whenever I wandered around downtown Sandersville, Georgia. In a place like that, I could rely on my extended family and my neighbors to keep me safe. And if anything had happened to my parents, I know my adult siblings would have cared for me.
Child welfare professionals are just catching back up to this concept: Government is not the best first responder to family crisis. Family is.
In the last four years, Georgia’s child welfare system has improved by leaps and bounds, ensuring children who come to the attention of the state’s child welfare system are quickly assessed and, if they must be removed from their homes, they receive the kind of support they need to keep their experience from totally derailing their lives.
There is no doubt in my mind that our increasing reliance on relatives is a major part of that progress.
Three years ago, more than 80 percent of the Georgia children who were placed in foster care due to abuse or neglect were placed in non-relative foster care. In addition to the added trauma of being removed from their parents, these children might have to leave their schools, the communities they knew, their extended family, their friends and familiar routines, and then move in with strangers.
In the last two years, though, as our case managers have done more work to reach out to relatives of children entering foster care and to support them in their caregiving duties, we have seen a near 50 percent increase in the number of children in foster care who are placed with a relative.
We have mounds of scientific evidence to tell us what happens as a result of that work.
Studies show that children in foster care who are placed with a relative experience less trauma, fewer moves from foster home to foster home and have better outcomes than their counterparts in school and in their social lives. That’s because even when they have to be removed from their homes, their relatives offer much needed stability and help them stay connected to their communities.
In addition to being able to carry on with their lives while their parents work through issues of substance abuse, domestic violence or mental health challenges, children placed with relatives are more likely to go back home. That is the whole point of foster care in the first place — to be a resource for families and provide a temporary solution in a time of crisis.
We know the comfort, commitment and stability of relatives helps children recover from the trauma they’ve experienced. That is why they should also be a part of our strategy to keep children out of foster care in the first place.
The problem is, however, that our national child welfare infrastructure hasn’t traditionally supported such a strategy. Rather, we have traditionally taken a binary approach to keeping children safe: either work to preserve the nuclear family (parent and child) or resort to non-relative foster care.
Under the new Family First Prevention Services Act, Georgia now has a new opportunity to support relatives in a way that may prevent children from coming into foster care.
The new federal legislation turns on its head the traditional system of providing financial support only after a child has entered foster care. Under Family First, child welfare agencies across the country will now be freer to use federal funding to support struggling families and assist relatives who have always been the first responders to their families’ crises.
Relatives can now be a part of the process before a situation becomes so dire that a child needs to enter foster care. And instead of choosing between two options — keeping a child at home or placing him in foster care — child welfare professionals can now work with relatives to keep families whole and take every measure available to keep a child safe with extended family.
In Georgia, we are working to change the concept of “family preservation” to mean preserving the extended family. Even if a child can’t be safe with a parent, we should make efforts to keep that child with a relative and provide sufficient services to the parent, child and relative to maintain that family unit.
As relatives have been the key to our success in foster care, I believe relatives will be the key to preserving families. That’s what family does: after all, even though I’m over 50 and have my own children, my sisters and brothers still keep a watchful eye on me and my three sons.
Let’s work to ensure that extended family approach and restructure our government child welfare services to support families in doing what they have always done and have always felt called to do — care for their own.
Tom Rawlings is the acting director of Georgia’s Department of Family and Child Services.
This column was written as part of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Who Cares: A National Count of Foster Homes and Families annual research and reporting project.