2010 Jordan Institute
16, No. 1
Clearing the Hurdles: Promising Practices in Supporting Kinshp Caregivers
Kinship caregivers are increasing in numbers, providing key relationships for children when their parents can’t take care of them. Helping children thrive in these placements is important, yet connecting families to the supports they need can be a challenge. Following are some of the hurdles encountered, along with promising practices that child welfare agencies are using to support relative caregivers.
Failure to Connect to Services
Most relative caregivers do not receive support from social service agencies. In itself this is not a bad thing, except in cases where eligible kinship families need support but fail to connect to services and the well-being of one or more family members suffers as a result.
Even when they do know about services, kinship caregivers may not seek out support from child welfare agencies. Their reasons may include:
- Perceived stigma of public assistance
- Fear that asking for help may put the children’s ability to stay in their care at risk
- Concern involvement with the agency will jeopardize their relationship with the children’s parents
- Belief that DSS involvement will burden them.
1. Targeted outreach efforts in local communities. To reach relative caregivers and other eligible individuals, some agencies have added new service delivery locations in schools, churches, or community centers to increase access and reduce stigma. Enabling relative caregivers to apply for benefits in a North Carolina Department on Aging office or a school (or even by phone or mail) may increase the extent to which they receive needed services.
“Provide information about assistance to other service providers who are likely to be in contact with grandparents and other kin…partnering with community centers or other local places like libraries, grocery stores, hair salons, and churches where families frequent can serve as an effective way of communicating with kin who are not currently aware of or utilizing all of the available services and resources. In addition, written information should be available to social workers at hospitals, Juvenile and Probate Court, counseling offices, or other places where kin might access services. Lastly, families need to know that they can ask for and even expect services for the children in their care” (Lorkovich, 2001). Use inclusive language in brochures, websites, and handouts to reflect the role of relatives. Outreach materials that refer only to services for “parents” may be overlooked by kinship caregivers (Ehrle & Geen, 2002).
The Philadelphia Society for Services to Children is a prime example of innovative outreach—they developed a curriculum that brings workshops to caregivers in their places of employment.
2. Build relationships with kinship caregivers. Gain kinship caregivers’ trust by:
- Approaching kin with helpful intentions
- Acknowledging kinship caregivers’ emotions—ask about their needs, desires, and questions
- Listening for and paying attention to their perceptions of the child welfare agency and your role
- Presenting agency services as additional resources that will fit with the supports they already have in place.
(Cimarrusti et al., 2000)
Word-of-mouth among caregivers in the community can help spread complimentary information about DSS and the services it provides.
Kin may feel unprepared for their role as caregivers and often need help identifying needs. Caregiving can bring added joys to a grandparent or other relative, but can also strain finances and relationships. Many relative caregivers experience major changes in future plans, daily activities, and social support. They may find that parenting expectations have changed since they parented their own children. Many are not sure of their legal role or responsibilities in making decisions on behalf of the child. Others are unprepared in terms of physical space or furniture needed to care adequately for a child.
As soon as relatives begin thinking about having the child placed with them, child welfare professionals should thoroughly discuss all options with them. This conversation should occur during the kinship care assessment. Although first and foremost assessment tools, NC’s initial (DSS-5203) and comprehensive (DSS-5204) kinship assessments are also useful for talking with kin care providers about their short- and long-term plans and support needs. To learn more, go to: http://info.dhhs.state.nc.us/olm/manuals/dss/csm-10/man/CSs1201c4.pdf.
1. Anticipate caregiver questions. Be proactive—share with caregivers typical questions from kinship caregivers regarding legal and other issues. The tip sheet below gives examples of common questions.
Tip Sheets for Kin Caregivers
Taking Responsibility for the Children
Ask the child welfare worker:
- Who has legal custody of the children?
- What rights and responsibilities does legal custody give in this State? Physical custody?
- May I receive a copy of the signed voluntary placement agreement? (when applicable)
- May I be involved in developing the service plan and receive a copy of the plan?
- Will I or the children have to go to court?
- Who is responsible for enrolling the children in school, obtaining health insurance, granting permission for medical care and obtaining it, signing school permission forms, etc.?
- Will someone from child welfare services visit my home on a regular basis?
- What are the requirements for me and my home if I want the children to live with me?
- Are the requirements different if the children are with me just temporarily?
- What services are available for me and for the children, and how do I apply?
- Are there restrictions on the discipline I can use (such as spanking) with the children?
- What subsidies or financial assistance is available? What do I need to do to apply?
- Am I eligible to become a licensed foster parent and receive a foster care subsidy?
Ask the child welfare worker:
- What is the current permanency goal for each child? (Siblings may not have the same goal.)
- What are options for the children if they can never return to their parents?
- What are my options if the children cannot return to their parents?
- Under what circumstances can I receive a subsidy to help pay for the children’s care?
- Will the legal arrangement be affected when the children turn 18?
- How will the child welfare agency continue to be involved with my family?
Source: USDHHS, 2005
2. Let them know their options. Give complete and accurate information. “Knowing about the advantages and disadvantages of legal custody, becoming a licensed foster home, or adoption as soon as possible helps kin caregivers to make better choices earlier and provides informed consent. Hopefully this also means that children move to permanency sooner” (Lorkovich, 2001).
3. Partner with other agencies to provide kinship caregivers with respite options, mentors or tutors for children, and tangible supports such as beds, toys, and clothing for children newly arrived in the household. Increasing caseworker access to flexible funds enables them to help caregiving relatives afford the initial costs of welcoming children into their homes. Agency investments of this kind can really pay off in the long run, both in terms of child outcomes and costs to agencies.
4. Offer foster parent training. Relative caregivers benefit from the same kind of training licensed foster parents receive. Information about child development, parenting, and taking care of oneself is valuable preparation for kin in the day-to-day realities of caregiving. However, agencies may need to make an extra effort to ensure that training materials are inclusive and speak to the concerns of kin caregivers. See Training Matters, vol. 12, no. 1 for learning resources related to culturally competent practice with kin caregivers.
5. Provide support groups or peer mentors. Meeting and talking with others who understand firsthand the joys and struggles of kinship caregiving can reduce feelings of isolation and give relatives emotional and practical support. Examples and resources:
- Forsyth County DSS’s Relatives as Parents Program (RAPP) is an educational and support group for grandparents and relatives who are primary caregivers for their children’s children or other relatives. RAPP provides caregiver support groups, educational programs, referral services, and networking. For more information, visit the RAPP website (www.forsyth.cc/DSS/relatives_parents.aspx) or contact Teresa Bryant (336/703-3744; firstname.lastname@example.org).
- Rhode Island’s Grand Divas, a group of “mature” female caregivers raising children who are not their birth children, provide mutual support and run a kinship helpline with the Rhode Island Partnership for Family Connections. Friendship, fellowship, advocacy, and learning activities keep this group’s membership growing. To learn more call 401/780-2255.
- Statewide: The NC Foster and Adoptive Parent Association (www.ncpapa.org) offers support to kin who
have adopted or are current or former foster parents licensed by North Carolina. The NC Cooperative Extension (www.ces.ncsu.edu) also provides workshops and programs for grandparents and other relatives raising children.
Confusion about Eligibility
Child welfare professionals and families may lack information about assistance programs and eligibility. Eligibility requirements and the application process for a variety of public services can be confusing. As a result, kinship caregivers are not always offered the full range of benefits for which they may be eligible. In addition, some who apply for public assistance are mistakenly denied benefits (Ehrle, 2002).
1. Train child welfare and Work First (TANF) workers on eligibility for services most needed by kinship caregivers such as child care, housing, food stamps, and legal consultation (Ehrle & Geen, 2002). Include eligibility issues unique to grandparent caregiving (Scarella, et al., 2003). Increase staff understanding of common barriers for kinship caregivers and how to advocate for and help caregivers navigate the system (Lorkovich, 2001). Use tip sheets, such as those in this issue, to help staff and families understand the array of financial and legal resources that can assist kinship caregivers as they provide care and fulfill responsibilities on the child’s behalf.
Nearly all children in kinship care are eligible for TANF child-only grants, yet these resources are underutilized. With training, staff can increase the number of families benefiting from this resource.
2. Develop dedicated staff members with expertise in kinship care issues and service navigation. Bellefaire JCB’s Kinship Adoption Project in Ohio used trained kinship care coordinators as a resource to other staff within the agency, helping case managers link families to resources and troubleshoot challenging situations involving kinship care (Lorkovich, 2001). Several states provide staff positions, termed “Kinship Navigators,” to serve as advocates and educators for caregivers, provide consultation and training about kinship issues to service providers, and collect data for program evaluation and design. Increasing the expertise available to co-workers can improve an agency’s capacity to serve kinship families.
Supporting kinship caregivers helps ensure stability for children. While it may not be a caregiver’s first thought to seek help from social services, agencies should try to ensure every caregiver knows helpful services exist and how to access them, should the need arise. Agencies’ improved efforts to reach out to relative caregivers is key in attaining this goal, as is helping caregivers identify needs and providing them with comprehensive and accurate information about services, resources, and options.
References for this and other articles in this issue