Hitting Close to Home

A family tragedy makes the issues surrounding kinship care more personal.
By Robert L. Little

Robert L. Little The day I received the call last June informing me that my sister-in-law, Dr. Betty Shabazz, had died after a valiant and painful struggle, the issue of kinship care shifted irrevocably for me, from the professional to the personal. A kinship parent, Betty Shabazz died doing what many have done for generations--raising a daughter's child. She died as a result of injuries sustained in a fire in her home, while caring for her grandson, Malcolm--a fire for which he has been charged as setting.

Reports of her last words noted that she remained concerned about the care and safety of her grandson. I was left with many private thoughts and memories of my brother's widow, their six daughters, and a 12-year-old grandnephew--a young boy whom I really did not know on the day of my sister-in-law's death.

Kinship care has been a constant focus in my professional work. As a social worker, a policy developer and implementer, a child welfare administrator, and a social work educator, I have consistently advocated for placing children with relatives as a preference, for more effective policies and training of workers involved in kinship placements, and for an honest dialog about kinship issues.

That telephone call, and the pain my family has experienced, has brought new resolve to my commitment. Kinship care is now both personal and familial. I will always wonder whether my sister-in-law's untimely death could have been avoided by a better, more skillful support system for kinship providers.

My hope is that we will live to see sincere progress regarding the value and importance of kinship care. As more child welfare professionals, child advocates, and human service systems look more intensely at kinship care, we must recognize that both formal and informal kinship placements are growing at unprecedented rates. If children are the true and primary beneficiaries of kinship care arrangements, relatives who are providing parental care for young children should have, as a matter of fairness, access to supportive assistance, including medical, social, legal, and financial services.

Formal and Informal

Reasonable estimates are that four out of five kinship placements occur informally, without official sanction or involvement. These families navigate helping and educational systems to meet the needs of their children and will interact with professionals and educators who are equally new to the many issues that arise in kinship care families. I worry about these families. Knowing, as I do, how slow progress has been in dealing with kinship care in the formal child welfare system, and that we continue to experience deficiencies in services and resources in public social services, I can only imagine the challenges that relatives face, trying to assist children without the help of the formal child welfare system.

The remaining one in five kinship placements, which occurs formally, is especially significant if the child welfare system is to mature and become as coherent and thoughtful as it can and should be. If formally placed children and their relatives received appropriate programs and essential services, this would, in turn, increase support for and sensitivity to the needs of all kinship caregivers.

Child welfare professionals should take a more proactive stance on issues impacting kinship care, exercising leadership by demonstration rather than remaining silent or, worse, permitting often uninformed policymakers to talk about kinship care as if it were just another form of foster care or an economic drain on state and local treasuries and the recently reformed welfare system.

Like most professionals, I have advocated permanence and safety for vulnerable children. I have also witnessed many of the positive impacts of services designed to strengthen poor families. Such initiatives as family preservation and reunification, when carried out by trained staff and a responsive child-serving system, work quite effectively. They are also much more cost-effective and efficient than traditional out-of-home care approaches. So why don't we use what works best for kids?

What's Best for Kids?

Recently, I have become aware of a unique ideological orientation growing in influence in child welfare circles. However well-intentioned, these advocates for change often present worst-case scenarios as the norm, emphasizing child safety considerations as a mantra. Proponents of this approach are leading a charge to terminate parental rights earlier, which will free more children for adoption. They get community and other influentials involved in expounding the virtues of streamlining adoption laws, practices, and costs. These are all laudable objectives, but none of the proposals are complete and comprehensive in their application to the children most often served in public child welfare systems.

Some of the recent adoption advocacy initiatives take child protection and safety issues to new levels. Concerns about child protection and safety, family preservation, and family reunification are not polar extremes. Consideration of these issues in an "either-or" context is misleading and disingenuous. Any agency employee of conscience and integrity who regularly observes children entering the child welfare system can tell you that most children can be adequately served if their families are engaged actively and appropriately. This country's child-serving system needs to do better protection, better family involvement, and better reunification work. We should not seek to build and increase one service outcome over another. Nor should we permit the old standby excuse, "the system doesn't work, so let's do this over that," to become our rationale for new service initiatives. Such approaches only weaken all approaches.

As an adoptive parent of over 30 years, I know that freeing a child for adoption is but one small step in a very important process. Finding and developing the right family for a child is a bit more complicated than assuming that there is a vast reservoir of appropriate families out there--only as far away as state-of-the-art advertising, cyberlinks, subsidies, and tax credits. These are all worthwhile activities, but they are by no stretch of the imagination silver bullets for a child-serving system that does not value children's own families as potential resources.

Families as Resources

We still must ask ourselves if we have thoroughly explored family resources, such as extended-family members. They may be resources for temporary short-term shelter, for longer-term placements, and quite possibly as adoptive parents also. Families who are known to child welfare often are poor and lack an understanding of and confidence in government and other child-serving systems. They might come forward as participants in a more "open" adoption process if they were valued as potential contributors to the child's safety and stability, rather than only as probable contributors to the child's abuse or neglect.

Rather than looking outside of the family circle, we might better reassess some of our ideas about family dysfunction, extended-family networking, and theories about what best serves the growth and development of children. How more permanent can we get than to encourage family members to assume responsibility for the ongoing care of children? Extended-family members have been keeping children safe, nurtured, and healthy for generations. Compared with traditional foster care, the casualties of kinship care are few. We need more families to come forward as primary care providers. The child welfare system should solicit family members at least as actively as we solicit nonrelatives.

Have you ever thought about what you would prefer for your own child in the event of your death or if you became impaired? Who would you prefer to continue your family hopes and aspirations--a family member or close friend, or someone unknown to the child?

My sister-in-law's decision to care for her grandson is not unusual in caring families. Rather than condemning kinship care because of one family's tragedy, let us seek to better assess relatives as resources for children and provide them with better services and support.

Coeditor, with Joseph Crumbley, of Relatives Raising Children: An Overview of Kinship Care (CWLA Press, 1997), Robert L. Little is president of R. Langdon Company, Lansing, Michigan, a human services consulting firm specializing in community and minority social service issues. He is also the former executive deputy commissioner of New York City's Human Resources Administration and the former commissioner of the city's Child Welfare Administration.

This article is from the Winter, 1998 issue of Children's Voice magazine. For information on the magazine contact the CWLA Publications Department at Copyright 1998 by The Child Welfare League of America. All rights reserved.

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