Generic foster parent training programs can make grandparents, aunts, uncles and others who take in children of their relatives feel like square pegs being pounded into round holes.
Nearly one-quarter of the nation’s 500,000 foster children live with relatives, according to a 2006 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report. But training designed for kinship caregivers has lagged in most jurisdictions – which is unfortunate, because the increasing use of kinship care cries out for special training.
A study released last month found that children in kinship care in Colorado had fewer out-of-home placements than other foster youth, and were seven times more likely to find a permanent placement. (See Report Roundup, page 30.)
Unlike traditional foster parents, who decide to take in children and are trained in advance of placements, kinship caregivers often fall into their role as foster parents rather suddenly, then receive training weeks or months later. “It was nothing they sought out,” says Shalonda Cawthon, vice president of Family and Children’s Services, a private foster care agency in Nashville, Tenn. “They just thought it was their responsibility, because they received a phone call in the middle of the night [that their] grandchild, niece, nephew might be taken into custody if they didn’t step up.”
The first problem: Many kinship foster parents often see the required training as unnecessary or even condescending, according to Training Kin to be Foster Parents: Best Practices from the Field, a report co-authored by Cawthon and published in July by ChildFocus, which helps youth agencies handle policy analysis, capacity building, program development, government and community relations, and strategic communications.
In states that haven’t tailored training for kinship caregivers, those caregivers “smile and listen, and they’re like, ‘OK, I know more about what these children have been through. Why is this being presented to me this way?’ ” says Sondra M. Jackson, executive director of Black Administrators in Child Welfare. “They’ll call me, and we’ll have long discussions about, ‘What in the world are these people trying to get me to do?’ ”
What’s more, the relationships that kinship foster parents have with the child’s parents can cause tension. While traditional foster parents can focus strictly on the child’s needs, a kinship caregiver may have divided loyalties, says the report by ChildFocus. To that end, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) encourages “family-centered assessments” that explore caregivers’ previous relationships with the parents and child and that define the roles and responsibilities of the kinship family.
The ChildFocus report profiles agencies that have changed their training programs, shortening and adapting them for kinship caregivers. Revisions include “making it flexible in terms of the number of hours of formal training,” Cawthon says.
Support groups, which are common in standard foster parent training, can be particularly valuable when adapted for relatives.
Support groups are valuable, says Ernestine Jones, author of a recent white paper, simply titled Kinship Care, from Casey Family Programs. She says kinship caregivers involved in such support groups found that “their problems still existed, but because they were able to find ways to support and work with each other, they were not as bad.”
“Call it something other than training,” Cawthon says of the support groups.
Two widely used curricula for foster parent training are the Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting (MAPP) and Parenting Resources Information Development Education (PRIDE).
In its Standards for Excellence for Kinship Care Services, the CWLA cites several matters that should be addressed differently for kinship care. For example, child welfare agencies need to be sure that families know about and can get access to public benefits, including child support and federal programs like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid. In most states, kinship caregivers must be licensed to receive such benefits.
Jones, a social work professor at Howard University in Washington and management consultant for community-based organizations, notes that kinship families still need much of the same assistance as standard foster families to deal with such basic needs as supplies (such as beds and bed linens) to help with health care and respite care.
Casey Family Programs recommends the development of a separate set of licensing standards that recognize the unique dynamics of kinship care.
The Casey paper cites research showing that kinship care is at least as safe as foster care overall, that placements with relatives tend to be more stable and provide more continuity with community and culture, and that states often feel less pressured to make longer-term decisions about reunification when youths are living with relatives.
The program profiles that follow are from the only four states ChildFocus found that offer specialized training for kinship foster parents. However, only one of the states has any data to show the effects of specialized kinship training.
Freelance journalist Ed Finkel is based in Chicago. firstname.lastname@example.org.