Keeping Kids With Kin
Kinship care saves children from state intervention that may alter their future outcomes.
When my brother and his wife needed to keep their daughter, Candi, safe from state intervention while they addressed their addictions, I volunteered since she had already been in a group home once. She’d just turned 13 when the four of us stood at the counter of the county clerk’s office, signing paperwork to make me her temporary legal guardian.
My life was enriched by my niece’s daily love and perspective. Taking responsibility for her made me feel closer to my family; I’d been separated from my family by adoption, and had only reconnected with them a decade ago. Still, I often struggled to remember I loved Candi’s parents and to honor them as whole people instead of stereotyping them as addicts.
In the United States, family separation is often an occasion for assigning blame to individual people, but larger forces are at work. Systemic misogyny and class oppression, sexual violence, and disease have put my white, working-class family at risk for five generations, forcing us to find ways to keep our children. In April 1941, my then 18-year-old grandmother, pregnant with her third child, married a man who knew he wasn’t that child’s father. The marriage allowed her to keep that child; her first two had been relinquished for adoption because she was young, unmarried, poor, and powerless. My mother, 14 when she was raped and became pregnant with me, couldn’t find a way to keep me. Some adult in her life signed papers letting me go.
Now, nearly two decades after taking Candi in, it’s clear we all did the best we could, keeping Candi—and many other relatives before me—from being displaced. No matter what age a child is, family separation is an adverse childhood experience that can cause toxic stress, leaving children vulnerable to outcomes ranging from heart disease to poor academic achievement. “It’s complex trauma because it’s not a one-time event,” says Lina Vanegas, a social worker who was born in Bogota, Colombia, in 1976 and sold to a white couple in the Midwest. “It sets us up for a trauma trajectory … and it’s intergenerational.”
The first way to stop this trauma is to prevent family separation in the first place, which is especially important for Black children in the U.S., who in 2023 comprised 23% of children in foster care. Those prevention techniques include training social workers to stop automatically equating poverty with child neglect. It’s difficult to determine how often children are removed solely because of impoverishment, but one 2021 study shows that neglect is overreported in circumstances of poverty. Families with limited means may lack access, for example, to transportation, making it difficult for them to keep medical appointments. If a child misses a medical appointment in that situation, is parental neglect the cause, or a lack of resources to secure transportation?
Stopping family separation also includes respecting cultural differences, as seen through the recently affirmed 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, intended to stop the forced assimilation of Indigenous children in the U.S. by placing them with Native families rather than in white adoptive homes. Kinship care promotes the cultural preservation ideal because it minimizes the trauma of removal, increases the likelihood of permanency, and preserves a child’s identity. Comparisons of kinship care and foster care show that children in the former arrangement are less likely to experience behavioral and mental health problems. When extended families take the responsibility of caring for children, they can ensure that children stay connected to their families by offering up family stories about themselves, their parents, and their ancestors.
Black families have historically relied on informal kinship care, as Dorothy E. Roberts notes in her 2001 Chicago-Kent Law Review article, “Kinship Care and the Price of State Support for Children.” However, these arrangements have been stigmatized in the U.S. “The Black community’s cultural tradition of sharing parenting responsibilities among kin has been mistaken as parental neglect,” Roberts writes. “Because mothers who depend on kinship care do not fit the middle-class norm of a primary caregiver supported by her husband and paid childcare, they seem to have abrogated their duty toward their children.”
But several recent studies, including Alia’s 2019 study, “Evidence Base for Avoiding Family Separation in Child Welfare Practice,” demonstrate that children living with addicted parents, children in kinship care, and children living in abusive family homes all have better outcomes than children separated from their families. The evidence was so overwhelming that it inspired the Family First Prevention Services Act, signed into law in February 2018, which prioritizes keeping children safely with their families rather than removing them from their homes. By implementing the priorities of the act, the Administration for Children and Families found that the number of children in foster care in the U.S. decreased from an estimated 407,000 in 2020 to 391,000 in 2021.
For me, care for my niece brought me full circle from being an abandoned child to joining a familial lineage of stepping in to prevent state intervention. However, families are complicated. I don’t have any “happily ever after” endings to share about children in my family who evaded the foster care system and are now CEOs of major corporations. Like every other family on Earth, we are complex and flawed. But thanks to kinship care, we’re still connected. We’re still a family.