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Another Voice: Kinship care should be supported as an alternative to foster care

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In 2015, New York State legislators passed a resolution that officially declared September to be “Kinship Care Month.” During this time, we highlight and celebrate the realities, sacrifices and commitment of the estimated 179,000 kinship caregivers across the state who are caring for children under the age of 18.

“Kinship care” is a phrase with which not everyone may be familiar. In its simplest form, it refers to the care of children by relatives or individuals who have a positive pre-existing relationship with a child. Such caregivers are grandparents who, instead of easing into the “golden years” of retirement, willingly agree to re-enter the “changing diapers” phase of life, caring for a grandchild while their daughter battles addiction. They can include the 18-year-old sister who is working two jobs and going to college while parenting her teen siblings because dad is in the hospital. Or the single uncle who has never been a parent himself, but is stepping up to provide a home for his sister’s three kids after a car accident.  

Research has shown on many occasions that if children must be separated from their birth parents, they have better long-term outcomes when they are able to stay with kinship caregivers. Children simply fare better when raised by people to whom they have already developed strong attachments.

The child welfare system in New York State has made huge strides over the past few years in focusing on locating and placing children with kinship caregivers instead of in traditional foster homes. 

Despite this effort, though, support services available to kinship caregivers are still lacking. While there are more than 10 agencies that provide foster-care services in Erie County alone, currently, there are only 14 New York State-funded kinship caregiver programs in the entire state. Unlike traditional foster parents who receive training, financial support and the safety net of having assigned social workers in their home regularly, kinship caregivers are often caught off-guard. Individuals who may not be prepared to parent full time can be asked to make split-second decisions. Their options are not often well explained, and they may be unsure how to access financial assistance or other resources that might be available to them. Ensuring these compassionate individuals receive timely – and effective – support, can make all the difference. 

Kinship caregivers put their own life plans on hold. They sacrifice their retirement income to buy diapers and formula. They give up their bedrooms to sleep on couches so kids have beds in which to sleep at night. They sacrifice their time, finances, and, in many cases, their dreams and long-term plans. And almost every time they say, “Of course, I will say ‘yes’ when called.”

This September, please take the time to notice, support and celebrate the kinship caregivers in your social network and community!

Leann Lapis is OLV Human Services director of foster care homefinding and kinship care.

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