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February 2008Vol. 9, No. 1Mentoring Kinship Caregivers-An Interview With Tiffany Hesser

The Caring Communities Demonstration Project in Clark County, NV, includes a kinship care program with some special features. Anchored in a systems of care approach, the program operates out of neighborhood family service centers that serve as the workplace for staff and specialists from a number of systems and disciplines. A relatively unique component is the use of kinship liaisons to mentor kinship caregivers. These liaisons are former or current kinship caregivers who have been hired and trained by the Department of Family Services (DFS) to link kinship caregivers with important resources, provide networking opportunities, and help support stable placements for children in care.

Clark County's experience with kinship caregivers was recognized by Casey Family Programs in 2004 when the county was selected to participate in the Casey Breakthrough Series Collaborative to support kinship care. This involved the rapid testing and evaluation of new practices for supporting kinship caregivers and their children.

Children's Bureau Express (CBX) spoke with Tiffany Hesser, Project Director, Caring Communities, about the county's experiences in developing the kinship support program and being part of the Casey Breakthrough Series Collaborative.

CBX: How is your Children's Bureau Systems of Care grant helping you support kinship caregivers in Clark County?

Hesser: When we applied for the grant in 2003, kinship caregivers in our area were a population with a great deal of unmet need. Unlike foster parents who choose to take in children and receive training and prepare their homes, most grandparents and other kinship caregivers aren't prepared to take in children. The call they may receive in the middle of the night to pick up a child is usually a surprise, and they may need a number of resources and a great deal of support. This support hasn't always been available to them through the DFS.

As a result of the grant, the mentoring program was begun in 2005, and since that time, we've refined the program and made the kinship liaisons paid DFS staff members. These four staff all have personal experience as kinship caregivers; that experience is what makes them valuable mentors to other kinship caregivers. Our liaisons contact the kinship caregivers, mail out packets of resource information, and explain their roles. Sometimes, a caregiver might not choose to draw on that support until a crisis arises. In other cases, caregivers are looking for a sympathetic listener who can understand what they're going through. Our liaisons are able to offer all those levels of support. That's part of the systems of care individualized approach. They can even explain and assist with the licensing procedure, if a caregiver is interested in becoming licensed.

CBX: Tell us about some of the stakeholder involvement in Caring Communities.

Hesser: We were very lucky because, at the time we received the grant, the University of Nevada was already in the middle of a study of kinship caregiver needs in the State. We were able to use the information from that needs assessment to do our initial planning. We also had the benefit of the knowledge of a number of stakeholders who were involved in children's mental health systems of care. Some of that involvement carried over to this systems of care grant for child welfare, and some did not. For instance, the use of neighborhood centers for staff was an idea that came from mental health systems of care.

Our kinship caregivers—both our liaisons and our families—have been involved stakeholders from the beginning. They are involved at every level. We have kinship caregivers review every brochure, resource guide, and evaluation tool we produce, and they sit on every committee and attend all our meetings. At times, for instance, during teleconferences with other systems of care grantees, some of the kinship caregivers have been reluctant to speak out, but we've convinced them of the value of their stories and the importance of sharing their experiences.

CBX: How do the kinship liaisons function as part of the DFS inhouse staff?

Hesser: It has been overwhelmingly positive to have the kinship liaisons work for DFS. Regular staff have come to realize their value and to regard the kinship liaisons as a resource for information and for referrals. And they're busy! Our most recent data show that the four kinship liaisons received approximately 500 relative referrals in 6 months. The kinship liaisons are also good at retaining the resource families that we need so badly. This focus on retention has become one of the most important parts of their job.

CBX: Clark County was 1 of 25 teams that participated as part of the Casey Breakthrough Series Collaborative on Supporting Kinship Care. What did you learn from that experience?

Hesser: Being part of the Casey series was great, because it gave us permission to go ahead and try lots of different strategies on a small scale and in a short timeframe. At the same time that we were working on the long-term systems of care approach, we also had the freedom to try some of the short-term "fixes" that were part of the Casey approach. For instance, we had the idea of using the National Crime Information Center to run criminal background checks on potential kinship caregivers beyond traditional work hours. Using this database allowed relatives to receive clearances and take children into their homes more quickly. We also enhanced our efforts at "diligent search," that is, the systematic search for relatives who could provide homes for children coming into care.

CBX: What do you see for the future of kinship liaisons?

Hesser: While we're just beginning our evaluation, we know anecdotally that kinship caregivers in our county have more support and better access to resources as a result of our program. We're now focusing on measuring and reporting outcomes that demonstrate this. Hiring kinship liaisons as DFS staff has worked well, and I'd like to see them continue their focus on retaining kinship caregiver families. Supporting and retaining these families will always be important for the permanency of children.

Tiffany Hesser can be reached at

The Breakthrough Series Collaborative report, Supporting Kinship Care: Promising Practices and Lessons Learned, is available on the Casey Family Programs website: (PDF - 839 KB)