Press "Enter" to skip to content

Can ‘Kinship Care’ Help the Child Welfare System? The White House Wants to Try.

WASHINGTON — Maria Elena Thomas and her husband were ready for a simpler life after they retired in 2015, sold their home in Colorado and settled on the southeastern coast of Spain.

“People would ask, ‘When are you going to come back?’” Ms. Thomas recalled in a recent interview. “We would say, ‘When somebody needs us.’”

The call came five years later. A child welfare worker in Colorado informed Ms. Thomas that her two grandchildren, then 17 months and two months old, had been placed in foster care because their mother — the girlfriend of Ms. Thomas’s son — had severely neglected them. Ms. Thomas’s son, who had been arrested on misdemeanor charges, was in jail at the time.

The Thomases, alarmed that their grandchildren were living with strangers, returned from Europe, scrambled to rent a home and took over care of the babies. “We worked hard all of our lives to be able to retire,” said Ms. Thomas, 61, who had been an elementary school principal. “But we could not bear the thought of these kids being in the foster system.”

To qualify for reimbursements for child care expenses, they went through an arduous process to become licensed foster parents, the same as for non-relatives: hours of grueling interviews about their lives, a rigorous background check, home inspections, classes and other requirements.

“It starts as one hoop after another, and then all of a sudden you’re left out in the water, out at sea, and you have to paddle your own boat,” Ms. Thomas said.

Credit…Chet Strange for The New York Times

White House officials are using the proposals to amplify longstanding criticisms of the foster care system, which largely operates in obscurity except in cases of widely publicized tragedy.

“The child welfare system is broken,” said Sherry Lachman, a White House budget official and the chief architect of the proposals. “Like chemotherapy, it can be lifesaving, but it can also be toxic, so it should only be used as a last resort. There are too many children in foster care who could have safely remained with their families with the right support.”

Among the champions of the proposals is Vice President Kamala Harris, whose advocacy for child welfare reform dates back to her time as attorney general of California, where she created an office to strengthen oversight of foster youth and other vulnerable children.

“The system in so many ways, in its design, has a tendency to fail these children,” Ms. Harris said in an interview. “I strongly believe it should not. We should not construct the system so that only the exceptional child survives, much less thrives.”

Credit…Chet Strange for The New York Times

The proposals prioritize keeping children with their birth parents or other relatives, who research shows are more likely to raise children who do better in school, have fewer mental health problems and a lower likelihood of entering the juvenile justice system.

Currently, about 35 percent of foster children are placed with kin, while 45 percent are placed in foster homes with strangers. The administration hopes that with the higher reimbursement rates to states for placements with relatives those numbers will be reversed and that group homes, which currently house about 10 percent of foster children, will be virtually eliminated from the foster care system.

The largest group standing to benefit from the proposals is about 2.4 million grandparents like the Thomases. They face unique hurdles, as they are often older and living on a fixed income. But they are the go-to relatives for child welfare workers seeking to move children from their caseloads.

Credit…Chet Strange for The New York Times

Many family members care for children outside the parameters of the system, in what is known as kinship diversion or “hidden foster care,” and often do not gain access to the money and other benefits that official foster parents and group homes receive.

The administration’s proposals would help such families by nearly doubling what the government spends on the Promoting Safe and Stable Families program, and making clear that the funding could be used to support kinship services. States that receive it would be required to track the families who are caring for children outside of the system.

“To see this level of attention and detail in a presidential budget means a lot to grandfamilies who so often feel left out and forgotten,” said Jaia Lent, the deputy executive director of Generations United, a group that advocates kinship care.

In recent years, there have been devastating examples of what can happen when relatives become entangled in the child welfare system with no support.

They include the case of Ma’Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old girl who was fatally shot by a police officer last spring as she raised a knife toward a young woman who had threatened her outside her Ohio foster home.

The tragedy of her death was compounded by the fact that her mother and grandmother had been trying to get her out of the system but could not meet onerous court conditions. Her grandmother, Jeanene Hammonds, who had briefly cared for Ma’Khia and her siblings, lost them after she was kicked out of her home by her landlord for having too many people living there and struggled to find stable housing as she awaited kinship benefits.

Credit…Gaelen Morse/Reuters

Advocates have since called on state lawmakers to better enforce kinship rights in Ohio.

In an interview with The New York Times last year, after Ma’Khia’s death, Ms. Hammonds described how she was haunted by what could have been if she had received the aid of one foster parent, faster. “As long as they knew I was there and it was OK for me to be in their lives, we could’ve gotten through this together until I got the housing together,” she said.

Such scenarios are at the core of a question that families who become entangled in the system face every day, said Sixto Cancel, the chief executive officer and founder of Think of Us, a child welfare research, policy and advocacy organization.

“If the federal government is willing to pay for a stranger to take care of a child, why wouldn’t the federal government be willing to pay for an uncle, aunt, grandmother to take care of a child?” Mr. Cancel said.

His organization was a godsend for M. Harris, who took in her niece and nephew after her brother’s funeral in January. She had promised him on his deathbed that she would look after them.

Credit…Max Whittaker for The New York Times

The 11- and 14-year-old made the move from a motel room in St. Louis to Sacramento with a single suitcase. With the help of Think of Us, who supplied her with mattresses and other basic necessities, Ms. Harris was able to help them settle in. But because she is not a formal foster parent, the only financial aid she has been able to secure is a monthly welfare check, which is gone after a couple of Walmart shopping trips.

“I am kin, but it doesn’t mean I don’t struggle too,” said Ms. Harris, who requested that her first name not be used to protect the privacy of the children. “I’d like to see fairness across the board when it comes to taking care of someone else’s child.”

Through tears this summer, she described her fear of not being able to fulfill her promise to her brother to look after the children. “I talk to God,” she said. “I say, ‘Can you talk to my brother? Tell him I can’t hold it down as much as I thought.’”

Ms. Thomas and her husband were foster parents for their two grandsons for nearly a year and a half, from November 2020 until this past spring. The expense reimbursements, day care support and a $200-per-year stipend for each child had been a big help, but the imposing child welfare requirements — including monthly visits from social workers — made Ms. Thomas want to live with her grandsons like a normal family.

In April she and her husband took guardianship of the boys, which relieved them of the foster care requirements, but the decision came at a cost: They lost the expense reimbursements and the day care support. Ms. Thomas is now managing $2,700 per month in day care costs — more than her $2,300 monthly income — through a grant she secured on her own. She returned to work in her local school system last fall to supplement the costs of caring for the children, who will need several types of therapies indefinitely.

As the Thomases look to the future, a number of the administration’s proposals — from the tax credit expansion to tens of millions of dollars in new funding for a “kinship navigator” information and referral program to more money for support mental health supports, parenting skills and substance abuse — could help them reach their ultimate goal: reuniting their grandsons with their father.

Their son was released from jail in July last year to a house for recovering addicts and has been involved in his children’s lives every day since. But his accommodations do not meet the court conditions to care for his sons, and he is struggling to secure a housing voucher.

“This one thing could change his whole life — for him to have a piece of paper that says, ‘You’re a fit father,’ — and it seems so out of reach,” Ms. Thomas said. “We’re probably going to die before the kids graduate from high school. So we’re prepared to do this for the rest of our lifetime.”

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *