Supporting Caregivers Through Kinship Navigator Programs
Written by the Capacity Building Center for States in partnership with Liliana Hernandez, child welfare program specialist, Children's Bureau
Recognizing that family separation is a source of great trauma, the child welfare field is making efforts to keep children connected to their families even when they cannot safely remain at home. These efforts are supported by federal policy requiring child welfare agencies to "consider giving preference to an adult relative over a nonrelated caregiver when determining a placement for a child" (Children's Bureau, 2020, p.3).
Kin—which commonly include relatives, members of a tribe or clan, godparents, stepparents, or other adults who have a family relationship to a child—and fictive kin—close family friends of the child and their family—are a significant source of support for children and youth in the child welfare system, actively caring for about 25 percent of children in out-of-home care (Child Welfare Information Gateway, n.d.).
Kinship placements can have multiple benefits, including the following (Cooper & Christy, 2017):
- Providing a familiar setting to a child who already may be suffering trauma (including maintaining connections with friends, community members, and schools)
- Preserving existing positive relationships with the parents
- Creating stability for the child by engaging in shared cultural practices and speaking the child's home language
While studies indicate that children placed with kinship caregivers experience fewer behavioral problems, fewer mental health disorders, better well-being, and less placement disruption than children in nonrelative foster care (Winouker et al., 2014), there are a number of barriers that relatives face as potential caregivers. Kinship caregivers are more likely to be older and less financially secure, experiencing poverty at double the rate of nonrelative foster parents (Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, 2007).
Kinship caregivers may care for children and youth through either voluntary or formal placements (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). Voluntary placements allow children to remain in the custody of their parents while a relative or friend cares for them (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). Formal placements are a substitute for nonrelative foster care in which relatives or friends may become licensed foster parents to care for children removed from their parents' custody (Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2016). Licensed kinship caregivers must meet state-specific licensing requirements, including household space requirements and background checks, although most states have chosen the option to waive licensing requirements that are not related to safety on a case-by-case basis (Children's Bureau, 2020).
One of the other key differences between voluntary and formal kinship care is the level of support provided by the child welfare system. While formal kinship providers receive monthly payments on par with other licensed foster parents, voluntary caregivers receive limited to no financial support through the child welfare agency and may or may not receive assistance navigating and accessing benefits for which they are eligible, such as child-only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Medicaid.
As states continue to strengthen their support for kinship caregivers and address both financial and systemic inequities, kinship navigator programs may be one piece of the puzzle.
Kinship Navigator Programs
Kinship navigator programs can provide critical supports for relative caregivers, including connections to resources and benefits, financial and legal assistance, peer supports, and more. All states are currently in the process of developing or enhancing kinship navigator programs through federal funding. These kinship navigator programs are designed to provide information and referral services to kinship families, including connecting them with legal assistance and government and community resources.
Simply having services available is insufficient, however. To reap the benefits, families must have consistent and easy access to robust and high-quality kinship navigator services. To that end, federal guidance requires kinship navigator programs to be developed in partnership with kinship caregivers and the youth they are raising (Children's Bureau, 2018).
Spotlight on Nevada's Kinship Navigator Program
Nevada's Department of Health and Human Services contracts with Foster Kinship, a nonprofit agency, to deliver free kinship navigator services to any relative or fictive kinship caregiver. Foster Kinship is unique in that it is a standalone, private nonprofit agency focused exclusively on serving informal and formal kinship caregivers. Its services include the following:
- Virtual supports, such as a helpline for information and referral and an online tool, available in English and Spanish, to help families find targeted local resources to meet their needs
- Kinship resource centers that provide multiple services, including meeting rooms, notary services, and emergency resources, such as diapers and clothing
- Family advocacy, case management, and behavior consultations
- Support groups, respite, parenting education, and family events
Foster Kinship reports the following case plan outcomes for the more than 1,000 families receiving services:
- 92 percent of families achieved legal permanency
- 99 percent of families reached community connection goals
- 93 percent of families achieved financial stability
- 98 percent of families reached emotional support goals
In addition, an outside evaluation demonstrated that children in families receiving kinship navigator services are three times more likely to experience a stable placement without disruption (Preston, 2021).
According to Ali Caliendo, executive director of Foster Kinship, "Kinship care is complex due to there being so many types of kinship families and systems to fully understand. The heart of designing an authentic support system comes from listening to caregivers as they express their needs and ensuring they are at the table as we design services to meet those needs. The beautiful thing about kinship caregivers is the love and care they have for, not only the children, but the birth parents as well. We have to create a support system to meet their needs while also helping them feel supported, valued, and as an equal part of the team." (A. Caliendo, personal communication, July 17, 2021).
Components of Kinship Navigator Programs
The following examples highlight kinship navigator resources and services available in different jurisdictions:
Cultural Connections. The Port Gamble S'Klallam tribe's kinship navigator program is supported by an elder who maintains personal relationships with each participating family. The program offers activities focused on maintaining cultural connectedness, a critical protective factor for children and youth in care.
The Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) partnered with Legal Aid to offer a hotline for legal advice and referrals. Visit the Georgia DHS Legal Services website
to learn more. Several other states have developed legal guides for kinship caregivers, including Massachusetts
, New York
, and Tennessee
Wisconsin Department of Children and Families has partnered with 211 Wisconsin to help kinship caregivers access community-based resources. Visit the 211 Relative Caregiver Guided Search to learn more. Several other states have developed printable or online resource guides, including Iowa
, New Hampshire
, New Mexico
, and Oregon
The resources below include additional information about kinship care and supports for relative caregivers:
Children's Bureau. (2018). Requirements for participating in the title IV-E Kinship Navigator Program
(ACYF-CB-PI-18-11). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/policy-guidance/pi-18-11
Children's Bureau. (2020). Use of title IV-E programmatic options to improve support to relative caregivers and the children in their care
(ACYF-CB-IM-20-08). U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.hhs.gov/cb/policy-guidance/im-20-08
Child Welfare Information Gateway. (2016). Kinship caregivers and the child welfare system
. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children's Bureau. https://www.childwelfare.gov/pubs/f-kinshi/
Winouker, M. H., Holtan, A., & Batchelder, K. E. (2014). Kinship care for the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment: A systematic review. Campbell Systematic Reviews
(1), 1–292. https://doi.org/10.4073/csr.2014.2
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