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What is kinship care? Wildly under-supported but effective


When their granddaughter was just three weeks old, born prematurely and still in need of special medical care, James and Pamela got an unexpected call: Can you care for her, forever?

Pamela was finishing a graduate degree. James was working a second shift. They’d had an empty nest for years now. They certainly hadn’t expected to be welcoming an infant into their home. But they said yes — and years later, they would welcome their second granddaughter into the family.

Their family, and the love and safety they’ve provided their two granddaughters, is a powerful demonstration of the value of kinship care. About one-third of children in the foster care system are placed with relatives, to great effect.

Whether fostering or adopting, the close relatives of a child are demonstrated to provide better long-term outcomes. Kinship care keeps children close to a way of life they’re accustomed to. It results in higher rates of permanence, social continuity, emotional continuity and identity stability. Children have better mental health outcomes, higher levels of competency and less trauma when taken in by relatives. Sibling sets are more likely to stay together, as well, and family members help keep children rooted in shared cultures, customs and traditions, strengthening the child’s sense of belonging. Increased connection between parents and children — when safe — also increases the likelihood of family reunification.

In theory, it seems obvious that kinship care should be the priority wherever possible, but the tragic reality is that kinship caregivers are often wildly under-supported, even being excluded from financial support extended to “typical” foster caregivers. They often have none of the prior training or legal preparation extended to licensed foster caregivers and are thrust into a bewildering sea of forms and deadlines.

As a result, the relatives of children who need foster care are commonly overwhelmed and isolated when they first assume responsibility for the child. Pamela was blessed to happen upon a helpful flier in a community center, but thankfully the rocky beginning of their foster care journey has changed her life for good.

“Before the girls, my goal was to finish my graduate degree,” she said. “And now I want to get the word out about families like ours. It can be hard to find good information about kinship care. I started by searching online for ‘grandparents raising children,’ and I didn’t find a lot. What’s changed for me is that I want to share what I’ve learned, maybe start our own support group.”

What James and Pamela deserved was a support group already in place, ready to welcome and guide them as soon as they realized they were going to be parents again.

Thankfully, they sought help prior to welcoming their second granddaughter. Bethany Christian Services was able to walk alongside them as they navigated licensing, training and even the trauma their children had suffered. We were able to share the experience of other kinship caregivers with them and, most importantly, build a community around their family.

We were honored to stand in the gap between what they needed and what they’d received.

But kinship caregivers like James and Pamela deserve a better-developed, better-funded foster care system. Their precious little girls do, too. Kinship care funding as it currently exists simply can’t keep up with the national cost of high-quality support for families.

There are a few policy reforms in particular that would help foster caregivers, of course: Expansions to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, for one. But these policy efforts complement, rather than replace, our work as Christians, parents, church members and neighbors. Our Christian life is intimately tied up with God’s call to minister to those in need — particularly children in need. “Take up the cause of the fatherless,” Isaiah 1:17 exhorts us. James 1:27 tells us that “[looking] after widows and orphans in their distress” is religion “pure and faultless.”

And this is a deeply practical calling. We are not called to think fondly of children in need, but to help them — and to help those who are in a position to help them. “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food,” reads James 2:15-16. “If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?”

We are all, whether we know it or not, capable of changing vulnerable children’s lives for the better. Let’s get involved personally, through church and through local programs that support and connect kinship caregivers.

It’s time we focused more on ensuring that every home is a chance for a child to know love, stability, and belonging. By doing so, we can ensure that the resources are available to empower, educate, and support every family who chooses to foster.  

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Dr. Kimberly Offutt serves as Executive Branch Director for Bethany Christian Services Georgia.

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