The Problem with Kinship Care

written by Naomi Schaefer Riley originally published on Published on December 12, 2020

Thanks, but no thanks. That was the message that aspiring foster parents got this fall when they sent inquiries offering their services to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. According to an automatic email reply from Dawn Marlow, administrator for the Office of Resource Families, the state is not accepting applications from any foster parents except those who are willing to take care of children with “complex developmental or medical needs.” How is it that states from Georgia to Michigan are struggling to find enough qualified foster homes to take in children—especially during a pandemic when many homes have closed and recruitment is hard—but New Jersey is doing just fine? The letter explains that: “In New Jersey, the number of youth in foster care continues to be reduced each year because we are focusing first on kinship placements.”

It’s true that the state has reduced the number of kids in foster care by two-thirds since 2003, from 13,000 to 4,000. But there are only about 1,700 kids who are being officially removed from their homes and cared for by relatives now (compared to 2,000 in non-relative homes). In other words, according to the state’s numbers, state-sanctioned kinship care can hardly be the real reason for this dramatic drop. What happened to the other 7,300 kids who would have been in foster care? If the state’s account of things is correct and kinship is the reason behind the drop, then they are in some kind of unofficial kinship care, not being monitored or even counted by officials.

Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (a national umbrella organization of foster and adoption organizations) tells me, “We should definitely celebrate any success in minimizing the need for foster placements, particularly if it’s been done in a wise and appropriately cautious manner… That said, it’s hard not to feel concern that these positive numbers could be obscuring something not so positive.” Other child welfare leaders who would only speak off the record echoed Medefind’s uneasiness and were shocked to find out that the state had stopped recruiting non-relative foster parents.

New Jersey’s child welfare system has been under a consent decree since 2004 after settling a 1999 class action lawsuit. Among the goals of the suit was to reduce the number of kids in foster care. The state has touted an increase in the amount and variety of preventive services it offers to families at risk—including home visiting for children under the age of five. But there are other ways to make the foster care numbers move in the right direction—not all of them safe. One is simply to find fewer cases of maltreatment. The fact that New Jersey has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic—and has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country—would also normally be a sign that more kids will need to be removed. But the state moved in the opposite direction, even at the height of the drug crisis. (From 2014 to 2019, the number of kids in foster care plummeted from about 7,500 to 4,500.)

According to statistics reported to the federal government, the state claims to have half as many substantiated cases of maltreatment as a percentage of the population compared to the country as a whole (4.8 per 1,000 compared with 9.2 per 1,000). Among children who were investigated for maltreatment, the state also claimed half the percentage who were found to have been victims (13 percent versus 24 percent). It is also investigating a lower percentage of cases that are being reported to abuse hotlines or other authorities (37 percent versus 45 percent nationally). All of these numbers might be great news and a sign that the state’s other support services are working. The fact that the number of reports to the state child abuse hotline rose from 75,000 to 80,000 between 2012 and 2019 does not inspire confidence, though. If preventive services like home-visiting are supposed to ward off a family’s involvement with the child welfare system altogether, why would more people be calling in reports of abuse or neglect?

It is not only the state’s consent decree that is pushing it to reduce foster care numbers significantly. Foster care itself has become an increasingly unpopular system—this summer there was an “abolish foster care” movement that paralleled the movement to “abolish the police.” Indeed, the administrator currently in charge of overseeing New Jersey’s compliance with the consent decree is Judith Meltzer, head of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), which has just launched the upEND campaign. Its goal is to end children’s removal from families entirely.

The upEND movement and its allies see foster care as systemically racist and kinship care—in part because it automatically places kids with adults who share their skin color—as the better alternative. If there is no substantiated finding of maltreatment, then the state can find relatives to care for kids without ever having to report those kids as part of the foster care system. The fact that New Jersey officials tells me they don’t keep any statistics on informal kinship care makes this last possibility more than likely, and more concerning. Elizabeth Occhipinti, the CEO of Miriam’s Heart, a faith-based organization that supports adoptive and foster children and their families in New Jersey, tells me: 

I am sincerely concerned that children are being left in situations of profound abuse and neglect and without access to essential services and support because of the Division’s policies

Elizabeth Occhipinti, Miriam’s Heart

Read on…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s