The Duke Endowment has awarded a $950,000 grant to the Family Focused Treatment Association (FFTA) for a North Carolina-based pilot project designed to provide therapeutic supports to foster youth living with relative caregivers.
FFTA, a national organization representing nearly 500 private and nonprofit agencies that provide therapeutic resources to foster children, is hoping to present a proof of concept for how these providers can partner with public agencies to better serve foster children with wraparound services while they live with relatives.
According to the terms of the three-year grant, which kicks off this month with a year of planning, two of North Carolina’s 100 counties will be selected to participate in the pilot project, with at least one urban county and one rural or suburban county.
According to FFTA board member Brian Lynch, who has helped guide the effort, the project will focus on two distinct populations of foster youth in out-of-home kinship care: children entering the foster care system for the first time and those who are transitioning out of congregate care and into a family-based placement. The two counties will probably work with four private service providers operating in the state.
“Most of our member agencies are already doing some kind of kinship work and if they aren’t, they should be — the train is leaving the station here,” said Lynch, who also serves as CEO of Children’s Community Programs of Connecticut. “The vitality of the foster care field right now is all about figuring out how to do kinship work well. We hope that kinship treatment foster care is going to start to be one of the levels of care on the continuum, not just an outlier.”
The project begins as North Carolina prepares for implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal law that has limited funding for group homes and opened up new funds to prevent more children from coming into foster care. But the law envisions that in some foster care prevention cases, kids will need to live temporarily with kin.
Though research on outcomes of foster youth placed in relative placements is limited, studies suggest that foster children placed with extended family members have lower rates of placement disruption, better odds of finding a stable living situation and perhaps even fewer behavioral issues than children placed with nonrelative foster families.
According to recent data from The Chronicle of Social Change’s foster care capacity data project, 27 percent of foster children in North Carolina are placed with relatives, up four percentage points since 2011 but still below the national average of 32 percent.
Despite a rising number of relative placements, North Carolina has had some struggles with bringing kinship caregivers into its child welfare system and fully supporting them. A child welfare reform plan submitted to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management identified streamlined licensing of relative caregivers as a key issue for the state. According to numbers provided by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services, just 5 percent of relative caregiver placements, or 134 of 2,389 foster children, were in homes that were licensed as foster parents.
“Currently our relative caregivers are faced with a system that does not always understand their needs, their roles, and are not always offered the appropriate training or services,” said Erica Burgess, director of foster care and adoptions with the Raleigh-based Methodist Home for Children and co-chair of North Carolina’s FFTA chapter. “A lot of the relative caregivers that I have worked with have felt defeated as they have not received the appropriate supports or assistance to meet the high demands of the children they are serving.”
Lynch is hoping that the pilot project will provide counties across North Carolina and even other states with a blueprint of effective collaboration among public agencies, private providers and philanthropic organizations around providing therapeutic services and supports to children living with kin. After three years, he hopes to have good data on how a regular pipeline of these services might impact outcomes for these foster youth and children, including better placement stability, less frequent disruptions and increased permanency outcomes.
“If you do this the right way and support [kinship caregivers], they’ll stick around longer,” Lynch said. “They won’t say, ‘I can’t do this anymore; come and pick the kid up.’ Once you do that, you lose that placement forever.”