Kin play a critical role in Pennsylvania’s child welfare system. Today, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (PPC), the only statewide advocacy organization with a public policy agenda that spans the life of a child prenatally through adulthood, today released its first kinship report, Kinship Care in Pennsylvania: Creating an Equitable System for Families.
Several children’s advocacy organizations contributed to the report, including: American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law; Community Legal Services; Children’s Advocacy Clinic at Penn State Dickinson Law; Juvenile Law Center; and Temple Legal Aid Office.
According to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, kinship care is the full-time care, nurturing and protection of children by relatives or any adult who has a “kinship” bond and can include grandparents, aunts or uncles, siblings, cousins or non-blood “relatives,” such as a teacher, coach or family friend.
“Family connection provides one of the most important contributions to the development and identity of children. A child’s family connections help them grow and thrive, provide them identity and security, and are a critical link to culture and traditions,” said PPC President and CEO Kari King. “When a child’s life is disrupted, calling on the support of family is custom in most communities and can be a great source of comfort for both children and the family.”
Research shows that compared with children in non-relative care, youth placed with kin experience better outcomes in several areas including placement stability; school stability and positive educational outcomes; increased likelihood of living with or staying connected to siblings; and greater preservation of race and cultural identity, including community connections.
The 2019 state-level report of Adoption and Foster Care Analysis Reporting System (AFCARS) provides details on formal foster kinship caregiving in Pennsylvania. Of the more than 6,000 children placed with a relative, representing 38% of all children in foster care, almost 70% are children under the age of 11.
In 2019, only 13% of children adopted from foster care were adopted by relatives, and another 13% exited to guardianship with formal kin (the difference being in guardianship the biological parent can still regain custody of the child whereas in adoption that ability is terminated).
When a child exits the child welfare system to permanency – into arrangements such as adoption or guardianship – younger children were more likely to be adopted and older children experienced higher rates of guardianship. Compared to White children, Black and Hispanic children are less likely to exit to permanency with kin.
The report provides several examples of kinship issues within the system, analysis of other state systems, as well as PPC’s policy recommendations to improve Pennsylvania’s kinship system.
“When suggesting the creation of new policies or modifying existing ones, it is important to listen to those who have lived experiences. The voices of those who are in or have been through the system must shape recommendations and ensure policies are effective and equitable,” said King.
One such example features Jessica, an aunt to five nieces and nephews. Due to a serious tragedy, the mother and father of the children were no longer available to care for the children. All five were placed in foster care and separated into different homes. While Jessica indicated her intention to be a caregiver for the children, the agency has denied her request to do so several times, none of which are legal, or safety related. Jessica continues to fight to be a caregiver but does not have legal standing in court and nowhere else to turn.
“Enlisting the support of kin can proactively prevent a child’s formal involvement in the child welfare system, or removal from the home in the first place. If it is necessary for the child to be removed, placement with kin can reduce the trauma of removal by providing continuity of care and connections to their family and community,” said King. “Removing children from the home of their parents or caregivers should always be the decision of last resort, but if it is necessary to ensure safety, placement considerations should first be with kin – blood relatives and those by marriage or adoption, a godparent or member of the child’s tribe – who have a significant relationship with the child or the child’s family.”