Kinship Care Kid Grows Into a Pioneer

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Pittsburgh, Pa.—A dozen years ago, as Sharon Toliver McDaniel began work for a nonprofit agency here that arranged adoptions of foster children, she kept getting confounding phone calls.

A former child welfare caseworker, McDaniel had become program director for Three Rivers Adoption Council’s Black Adoption Services because she thought it would let her focus on a constructive mission: giving foster children the security of adoptive homes.

Then came all those calls from the children’s relatives. A grandmother would ask why McDaniel was arranging for the woman’s granddaughter to be adopted by the girl’s foster parent. How could McDaniel cut the child off from family? the grandmother would ask. She’d demand to know why she wasn’t being considered to adopt the child.

For McDaniel, who’d been raised in foster care by kin after her mother’s death, the calls were disquieting. She knew the grandparents were not considered for the adoptions because they’d been overlooked for foster care years earlier, when the children were removed from the parents’ homes.

McDaniel decided to do something for the grandparents. She created an agency to help kin become foster parents at the outset, so they wouldn’t find themselves excluded from adoption later.

That decade-old agency, A Second Chance, has helped Allegheny County resolve a variety of problems common to child welfare agencies nationwide, and has become a national model for kinship care. It is believed to be the only nonprofit focusing exclusively on kinship care and facilitating that care from emergency placement to permanency.

While some child welfare agencies accommodate or just tolerate kinship care, the Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) aggressively pursues it, using A Second Chance as a liaison with families. As a result, 44 percent of the county’s foster children are in kinship care. Nationwide, the rate is 24 percent of the 532,000 children in foster care.

In addition, the partnership between CYF and A Second Chance ended the shortage of black foster homes in Allegheny County, as well as the resulting condemnation of the agency for placing black children in white foster homes. And it created a cadre of licensed respite caregivers.

Children and families have benefited in all the ways that prompted Congress to pass the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which directs states to give kin first priority for placement when abused and neglected children are removed from their parents. The percentage of children in kinship care has actually not grown significantly since then, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. But it has grown since the 1980s, for reasons that include decisions in federal lawsuits forbidding discrimination against relatives in foster placements and a decline in traditional, non-relative foster homes.

Now McDaniel is sought after for her expertise, serving on panels such as the kinship committee, established in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 to advise Congress on how kinship care could be supported and improved. Kinship Expert Rob Geen, director of child welfare research for the Urban Institute, notes that, “A Second Chance has been known for a number of years as a leader in the field.” McDaniel formed her nonprofit in 1994 with $1.4 million from CYF, which included foster care payments that A Second Chance made to kinship parents it certified. Soon thereafter, the director of Allegheny County’s child welfare agency asked McDaniel to help with a controversial case that had provoked protests against the agency by the black community.

Like many public agencies that couldn’t find enough minority foster homes during the crack epidemic of those years, Allegheny County’s had placed a drug-exposed black infant with a wealthy white family. That couple wanted to adopt the baby.

The boy’s birth family, including grandparents and aunts, wanted the child moved to relatives. The conflict escalated to talk show tirades and demonstrations in front of the judge’s home. McDaniel’s agency supervised visits as the boy and his sister moved between the white foster family and relatives. Eventually, neither family got custody.

Then in 1996, Marc Cherna became the county’s child welfare director. McDaniel sold him on kinship care, and Allegheny County implemented a new policy under which caseworkers would first seek relatives and close family friends for placement. (In Pennsylvania child welfare practice, the term “kin” includes friends and neighbors with close family ties.)

The caseworker conducts safety checks on the kin, including calls to the state child abuse registry, a criminal background search and a home assessment. Those who pass these tests may keep the youngsters until a judge reviews the placement within 72 hours. If the judge consents to the placement, the caseworker calls A Second Chance.

McDaniel’s agency licenses the kin caregiver, usually within 60 days, using the same standards that non-relatives must meet. Pennsylvania and a dozen other states impose the same licensing standards for kinship and unrelated caregivers.

A Second Chance operates with a staff of 155 and an annual budget of $12.7 million, half of which goes to kinship caregivers in the form of foster care payments. It served 1,382 children last year. Virtually all of its operating funds come from CYF.

A Second Chance also helps kin deal with the many pressures of the licensing requirements. It buys fire extinguishers, beds and dressers for impoverished grandparents. Instead of making kin arrange babysitting and travel to an office for daytime training, A Second Chance conducts classes on Saturdays and evenings, and sometimes offers instructions in the home.

At the same time, A Second Chance helps rehabilitate birth parents so that their children can be returned to them. Cherna, who serves as both director of CYF and of the county’s Department of Human Services, says this works well in a good cop/bad cop manner: His agency’s child welfare worker is the bad guy who took the children. The Second Chance caseworker is the good guy who helped Grandma get a Section 8 voucher for an apartment big enough for all of the youngsters to live in. In the eyes of the family, she can be trusted.

When the children are returned to their parents, the county is left with licensed foster parents – the kin – who are often eager to serve as respite caretakers. Because so many of the kinship caregivers are minorities, the county can now avoid transracial placement when a minority child must go to strangers. In fact, Allegheny County has occasionally found that the most qualified or only available foster parent for a white child was a minority family.

In cases where the child is not headed for reunification with the parents, A Second Chance works with the kinship caregivers toward adoption or guardianship.

While some kin are willing to adopt, others balk because they don’t want to see termination of the parental rights of their own daughter, sister or other relative. To deal with this problem, McDaniel worked on the Statewide Task Force on Kinship Care, which recommended that Pennsylvania establish a subsidized guardianship program. Now children may stay indefinitely with relatives, who are paid for the care, while legally remaining the sons and daughters of their biological parents.

Same Standards for Kin?

McDaniel’s support for kinship is both rational and emotional. As fast as any expert, she can rattle off kinship’s benefits, including fewer moves for children and increased likelihood of siblings remaining together.

But this is also a woman who was raised in kinship care from the age of 3, and who, as an adult, took in a teenaged cousin to raise. She had to meet the same standards as any unrelated foster parent.

Although relatives complain about the burdens of getting licensed, McDaniel agrees with Cherna’s requirement that rules devised for the welfare of children should apply to all foster caregivers. She tells relatives that it’s for their protection: No one could say something bad happened because the kin failed to meet the standards required of other foster parents.

That philosophy is not universal. A 2002 study by the Urban Institute found that 15 states require kin to meet the same requirements for certification, while 23 waive some requirements for kin and 20 impose less stringent licensing standards.

Louisiana and Ohio, for example, place youngsters with kin whether they meet licensing requirements or not. Sixteen percent of Ohio’s 19,000 foster children are in the homes of unlicensed relatives. In Louisiana, 11 percent of the state’s 4,300 foster children are with uncertified families. Safety checks are conducted, including criminal record investigations, but uncertified kin do not have to meet other requirements, such as taking foster parenting classes.

“We use different standards, and people could criticize us for this,” says Jean Pittman, Louisiana’s foster care program manager. “But if we are placing a 17-year-old in a home with a German shepherd in the back yard with no immunization tags, we do not feel that child is in danger.”

Barbara Turpin, kinship care coordinator for Ohio, says that placing a child in a relative’s home where the youngster can maintain cultural ties is more important than putting the child in a home that meets some square-footage space requirement for bedrooms.

Other states, such as Oregon, changed their standards to make it easier for kin to qualify for licenses immediately. In June 2001, Oregon declared that a safety assessment would qualify anyone, kin or not, for certification. After that, the caretaker has to complete 10 hours of training a year. This eased the way for kin placements. Thirty-four percent of the state’s foster children are in kinship care.

How Much to Pay?

Meeting standards is largely about money. When kin don’t meet the same licensing standards as certified foster parents, states usually don’t pay them the foster care rate. Instead, kin are referred to welfare agencies to get benefits for the youngsters through Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF). Typically, TANF benefits are about one-third the amount of foster care payments. In Allegheny County, for example, a grandparent receiving TANF to support two grandchildren not placed through CYF gets $316 a month. A grandparent licensed by A Second Chance to care for two grandchildren placed by CYF receives $1,080 a month.

Louisiana goes with TANF. Pittman supports that policy, saying, “Even though they’re not paid foster care [rates], this child has the advantage of being with a relative.”

Some states, such Florida and Illinois, offer an intermediate payment level for kin that is between standard foster care and TANF payments.

Illinois restricts the payments to those caring for children who’ve been abused and neglected, as opposed to children living with grandparents for various other reasons. After Illinois opened the door to kinship payments in the mid-1980s without making that distinction, the number of children for whom it paid foster care subsidies ballooned from 18,000 to 52,000 in less than a decade. The restriction helped bring the figure back to about 18,000.

Allegheny County agrees with that distinction: Only children removed from parents by the child welfare agency as a result of abuse or neglect, and placed with relatives by a caseworker, qualify for the agency’s kinship program. This annoys grandparents who have taken in their grandchildren before they could be hurt and before child protective services stepped in.

Cherna believes that anyone who cares for an abused or neglected child should receive the full foster care subsidy. He says the subsidy is not a salary for the foster parent; it’s supposed to cover room and board costs for the child, and those costs aren’t lower just because the youngster lives with a relative.

Some observers say relatives are morally obliged to take in the children without government compensation. Cherna is unwilling to reject the most comfortable and comforting placement for youth – their relatives – because of a belief that those relatives should do it for free.

McDaniel, however, declined to take the money for the care of her cousin. She could afford to make that choice, but points out that many people cannot. Many are single and live on Social Security income. Half of kinship caregivers are low-income, according to a 2003 study by the Urban Institute.

For McDaniel, being raised by kin kept her in contact with her father. “I had a link to my past,” she says. “It is the same with the children we serve today. They reconcile that they cannot live with a parent. But they still love their parent.”

McDaniel remained with her kinship parents – family friends whom she’d always called aunt and uncle – through adulthood, and is still close to them and her father. The arrangement also kept her close to other family members – such as her late paternal grandmother, who was instrumental in McDaniel’s life, always expressing high expectations and helping to pay for her undergraduate and graduate degrees.

Knowing the value of those connections, McDaniel’s decision to take in her cousin was easy. Unlike so many youths who become homeless after aging out of the child welfare system when they turn 18, the cousin stayed in McDaniel’s home.

She is, after all, kin.

Kinship Caregivers Support Act

Two U.S. senators proposed legislation this summer to help hundreds of thousands of kinship caregivers. Endorsed by the Children’s Defense Fund and the Child Welfare League of America, the Kinship Caregivers Support Act would establish federal financial support for relatives who become guardians of foster children and create programs to help kin secure government services for the children.

The legislation, offered by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), would give new aid to relatives who are the primary caretakers of children, even if those children are not in the child welfare system.

The bill would probably increase the number of children in kinship care, because it would require child welfare agencies to notify relatives when youngsters are removed from their parents.

For foster children who have lived with kin for at least 12 months, the legislation would permit use of federal funds to pay for subsidized legal guardianship instead of foster care. The money would come from the same pool that provides foster care payments – Title IV-E of the Social Security Act. Some states, including Maryland and Illinois, have already obtained waivers from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to do this.

Subsidized legal guardianship is a permanency option for foster children that permits them to leave the child welfare system without termination of parental rights. This option is attractive to kin who do not want to be involved in stripping relatives of their legal relationship with the children.

For children who have not been deemed abused or neglected but who are living with relatives, the bill would create the Kinship Navigator Program. Federal grants would be given to state and city agencies and tribal organizations to establish hotlines, websites, resource guides and other aids to help kinship caregivers enroll children in school, obtain Medicaid and welfare payments for them, and get other services. States could also use the money to create kinship care ombudsmen, who would intervene with service providers to ensure kinship caregivers received all the services for which the children qualify.
The bill’s chances are unclear, especially in an election year, when legislation to change federal processes often stalls.

Marc Cherna, Director
Allegheny County Department of Human Services
One Smithfield St., Suite 400
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 350-5705

Sharon McDaniel, CEO
A Second Chance
204 North Highland Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15206
(412) 665-2300

Rob Geen, Director
Child Welfare Research Program
Urban Institute
2100 M St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 833-7200