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May 2022Vol. 23, No. 4Reconnecting Family Ties for Children and Youth in Foster Care

Written by the Capacity Building Center for States

"Reconnecting with and strengthening my relationships with family has always been an important part of finding my identity and sense of belonging. However, this power comes with a different set of unexpected challenges. Family events can often be stressful as we struggle with how to treat one another. It is difficult to have healthy relationships because we did not have the opportunity to learn how to do this when we were younger."— Aleks Talsky, young adult consultant, Capacity Building Center for States (2021, p. 2)

When a child or youth enters foster care, it is traumatic. Being removed from their home interrupts family bonds, and a child may feel as if everything they have known has disappeared. When parents can no longer safely care for a child, living with a family member or close family friend may be the least disruptive option for the child. Children and youth need long-term relationships to give them a sense of belonging and help them feel loved and connected to their family, friends, and culture. While finding legal permanency through reunification, guardianship, or adoption is an important goal, supporting these long-term relationships, or relational permanency, is just as important. 

The following provides information about what can agencies do to build a holistic network of family and caring adults for children and youth.

Prioritize Family Finding 

As a first step, ask youth what relationships are important to them. Agencies can begin conducting an intensive search for family members and fictive kin before children enter out-of-home care. Kinship care should be the priority for children if they are separated from their parents. Engaging extended family and fictive kin like teachers, coaches, and family friends should extend beyond finding children a home. Instead of pressuring kin into a caretaker role they may not feel able to fulfill, agencies can explore what long-term relationships, connections, and emotional or other supports kin are able to offer as children grow into adults. Throughout the time children remain in foster care, agencies should continue the search with urgency to expand their lifelong support network of caring adults and long-term relationships. For youth, having support establishing and maintaining these connections will help them navigate these often-complex relationships and explore their identity.

Support Kinship Caregivers

Provide kinship caregivers with benefits and support to the same degree as nonrelative resource parents, including financial and concrete supports, training, trauma education and support, guidance, and respite care. Children living with kinship caregivers achieve better outcomes, maintain a closer connection to parents and siblings, experience fewer disruptions when in kinship care, and are as safe or safer than children in nonrelative foster care (Hassall et al., 2021; Koh et al., 2021; Schmidt & Treinen, 2017; Winokur et al., 2018). Licensing should be individualized to prioritize the children's relationship with a specific relative; keeping siblings together; and safety requirements over nonsafety requirements, such as the square footage of a house.

Invest in Kinship Navigator Programs 

Dedicate staff and resources to promote and support kinship placements, caregivers, and families. Unlike foster parents who may go through training and certification, kinship caregivers may answer an unexpected call to step up for a family member with little time to prepare. Kinship navigators can ensure kinship caregivers have the support they need to meet children's social, emotional, and physical needs. Programs like Ohio's OhioKAN Kinship and Adoption Navigator have specially trained staff who continually reassess caregiver needs to align services and supports and also provide regular material and emotional support. In some programs, kinship navigators also participate in ongoing family finding. 

Create a "Kin First" Culture 

Work to create an agency culture that expects and supports kin-first practices. People need real strategies to become aware of and begin to dismantle unconscious biases, to replace negative stereotypes with positive examples, and to understand the benefits of maintaining kin connections for children and youth. Activities in the It's All Relative: Supporting Kinship Care discussion guides and video series can be used for individual coaching or to promote collaborative discussions. Enlist people with lived experience in the child welfare system to facilitate training at all levels, including preservice assessment, safety training for staff, and licensing training for kinship caregivers and nonrelative foster parents. Include youth, parents, and kinship caregivers on panels that speak to policy at agency, state, and federal levels to ensure policies and practices affirm, promote, and support family finding, kinship placement, and preserving sibling connections. Build parent partner programs to support family engagement, provide peer-to-peer mentoring, reduce social isolation, and link parents to services. The Parent Partner Program Navigator can guide agencies through this process.

Maintain Sibling Connections 

Placement in foster care is traumatic, and keeping siblings together provides continuity, connection to family, and serves as protection against trauma. Sibling relationships are often one of the longest-lasting relationships over a lifetime. Young children spend more of their free time with siblings than with anyone else and significantly affect each other's development. Support and warmth from sibling bonds can have a positive influence on social competence, academic engagement, and educational attainment, and sibling bonds continue to have a positive influence on adult well-being (Feinberg et al., 2012). Kinship care may increase the likelihood that siblings can stay together. If siblings are split apart, support meaningful opportunities for them to spend time together in natural settings and frequent contact through technology (e.g., internet, cell phones, social media). Take advantage of offering more extended time together through programs like Camp To Belong, which reunites siblings for a week of recreation in an emotionally supportive environment.

Additional Resources

Explore the following resources as you consider how your agency can support relative and kin connections:

Feinberg, M. E., Solmeyer, A. R., & McHale, S. M. (2012). The third rail of family systems: Sibling relationships, mental and behavioral health, and preventive intervention in childhood and adolescence. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 15, 43–57. 

Hassall, A., Janse van Rensburg, E., Trew, S., Hawes, D. J., & Pasalich, D. S. (2021). Does kinship vs. foster care better promote connectedness? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Child & Family Psychology Review, 24, 813–832.

Koh, E., Ware, A., & Lee, E. (2021). State implementation of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act: Exploratory study on kinship care. Advances in Social Work, 21, 77–99.

Schmidt, M. C., & Treinen, J. (2017). Using kinship navigation services to support the family resource needs, caregiver self-efficacy, and placement stability of children in informal and formal kinship care. Child Welfare, 95(4), 69–89.

Talsky, A. (2021). The path away from—and back to—my siblings: Discovering the power of identity and sibling relationships. National Association of Counsel for Children. 

Winokur, M. A., Holtan, A., & Batchelder, K. E. (2018). Systematic review of kinship care effects on safety, permanency, and well-being outcomes. Research on Social Work Practice, 28, 19–32.