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November 2020Vol. 21, No. 8Transforming Child Welfare: Seeing Kinship Care Through a Racialized, Cultural Context and Community

Written by Sharon L. McDaniel, Ed.D., M.P.A., and alumna of foster care and recipient of kinship care. Dr. McDaniel is the founder, president, and chief executive officer of A Second Chance, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA

No child in need of child welfare supports and placement services ever asks to be placed with a stranger! Every jurisdiction in the country should recognize that children do best in their own families. When you go upstream, you disrupt the current mindset that sees children and families who are poor and/or of color through a pathological lens. Nearly 30 years ago, I founded A Second Chance, Inc. (ASCI), an agency intent on going upstream to disrupt child welfare's typical family engagement—which was culturally and racially biased.

According to 2019 data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, only 32 percent of foster children are in relative/kinship placements. This means 68 percent are not with relatives. Placements for children in nonrelative care include nonrelative foster care (46 percent of the total children in foster care), institutional care (6 percent), trial home visits (5 percent), group homes (4 percent), preadoptive homes (4 percent), and supervised independent living (2 percent). An additional 1 percent are classified as runaways. In terms of race and ethnicity, children of color represent more than 46 percent of the child welfare population: 23 percent are African American, 21 percent are Latinx, and 2 percent are American Indian/Alaska Native. 

A recent article published by The Imprint argued that there is a critical need for the child welfare system to challenge the current operating paradigm, which equates poverty to neglect. This pervasive posture of the child welfare system both perpetuates and reinforces systemic biases rooted in racial and cultural constructs, which does more harm to Black, Brown, and poor White families, who, as shown by the data, experience poor outcomes more often than not. The common notion that the "apple does not fall far from the tree" is an example of systemic bias. However, based on ASCI's data, our respect for family works, as the percentage of children subjected to substantiated or indicated maltreatment while in kinship care is .00001 percent, and our placement stability far exceeds other forms of care.

Every discussion of child welfare practice must include a racialized and cultural context. This is a guiding philosophy at ASCI, a pioneering human services kinship care agency that trusts and values that children thrive best within the cultural and emotional closeness and care of their families. Unfortunately, the child welfare system's current deficit-based policies, procedures, and practices undermine the trust of families. Before child welfare is even involved, the Black family is suspect, and White saviorism still influences child welfare practice, which maintains the traditional foster care model of separating children from their own families. Why is this the case?

Since its founding, ASCI has narrowed its focus on transforming child welfare by employing a strategy that is "family first" and community focused, meaning the kinship triad (i.e., child/youth, birth parents, and kinship caregiver) is paramount in developing respectful policies, procedures, and practices that address the insensitive and bureaucratic nature of child welfare. In an effective service-delivery model, kinship care offers families the opportunity to self-define their child welfare experiences through their expertise rather than through a systems framework. As such, ASCI will be participating in an upcoming university-based research study exploring the experiences of grandparents raising their grandchildren in an effort to learn how the system can better support them, their grandchildren, and all kinship families.

To address our challenged system, we propose using a values- and practice-based model for supporting families that includes the following components:

  • Identify the compounding, transecting, and concurrent drivers that bring families into child welfare. In order for the child welfare system to move toward transformation, it must first seek to understand the impact of historic systemic injustices on Black and Brown families and their communities. Furthermore, the system must dare to discontinue the funding of policies, procedures, practices, and out-of-home placement options that lack evidence and efficacy and are unfavorable for positive outcomes. Among practices that must be examined are hotlines, the mandated reporting structure, child protective services investigative practices, family engagement strategies, and placement decisions. Rather, what should be funded are those proven strategies that have been both researched and are family supported (e.g., differential response, in-home services, kinship care when out-of-home care is needed), which must be carried out through a racialized and culturally relevant lens. At ASCI, race equity and how it impacts the triad is addressed at regular intervals; it becomes a pattern in our work and impacts youth and family outcomes. For example, while reviewing ASCI's data for an upcoming report, it was revealed that our Kinship Navigation program is significantly more successful with African-American youth compared with other programs in Allegheny County.
  • Believe kinship care bonds (DNA) are stronger than court orders. In the complex business of child welfare, kinship care is the primary path to honor culture, race, difference, and indigenous spaces. Families don't self-identify as dysfunctional; the system applies that label from a racially and culturally insensitive and biased mindset, as well as an uninformed perspective. Poverty, racism, and violence can threaten a family regardless of how resilient, stable, and confident they are. Reimagining child welfare means challenging and disrupting what has become the embedded tradition and culture of racism in policy and practice.
  • Reform child welfare language. Words matter. They begin our relationship with families. We must change "child welfare" to "child wellness/child well-being." In the present context, child welfare is synonymous with parental failure and linked to a racist lens of poverty we confuse with neglect. It is so normalized that leaders in child welfare fall victim to the resulting institutionalized repercussions. Institutionalized racism is why Black children are overrepresented in foster care. In 20 states, the percentage of Black children in foster care is two or more times the percentage of Black children in the overall population. We must challenge the vocabulary. For example, at ASCI, we do not say "removal;" we say "temporary relocation with family." You remove a stain; you don't remove children from their families.
  • Infuse hope-informed care into trauma-informed care. Hope acknowledges the dignity and resiliency of families. The system must stop interrupting and correcting how a family heals. We cannot disassociate care from healing. According to research, this disproportionate interference in Black families reinforces negative stereotypes that Black families are incapable of caring for themselves without government assistance and supervision. At ASCI, we consider system-created trauma in our engagement with the triad. Every family has their own processes and timelines for healing, which are typically not the same as the system's. I can document my trust in family-centered healing. Since ASCI opened, we have serviced more than 33,000 children between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and 93 percent of them have achieved permanency or found their forever homes.

Investing in children, youth, families, and communities is and will be an upstream journey. The conversation to transform child welfare moves from imagined to hopeful when we disassociate poverty from neglect; when we actually believe poor families love their children as much as anyone else; when we focus on family strengths, resilience, and belonging; when we fund services that support families; and when we keep families together instead of tearing them apart. This hope reinforces what I have long come to believe: When you protect the family, you protect the child. When you set up healing for the birth parent, you heal the child and caregiver. When you support community, you change the world. Investing in the preservation of families is in the spirit of what ASCI believes as its fundamental work and ultimate purpose.