Cohort Addresses Growing Kin Care Population’s Needs

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From the 2020 State of Grandfamilies report, “Facing a Pandemic: Grandfamilies Living Together During COVID-19 and Thriving Beyond”

by Diana St. Lifer

Each month 11-year-old Shiloh enjoys dinner and play time with a group of children who range in age from 4 to 16 as her “mom and dad” join other guardians in a nearby room for a kinship care support meeting. Shiloh is aware that the people she refers to as her parents are, in fact, her aunt and uncle, but will quickly add, “I sure do love my new mom and dad.”

Shiloh and her playmates are among the more than 101,000 Georgia children in kinship care, according to the latest KIDS COUNT data. Kinship care has been on the rise in Georgia, so in 2015 the Georgia Department of Human Services (DHS) and Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS) launched the Kinship Navigator Program, a comprehensive offering of information, services, and support for grandparents and other relative caregivers.

According to the Kinship Navigator Program, Georgia had the fifth largest number of grandparents living with grandchildren in the United States in 2018, and GrandFacts: State Fact Sheets for Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children reports that more than 95,200 grandparents in the state are responsible for their grandchildren as of March 2021.

When DFCS was awarded funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 2018 to evaluate the Kinship Navigator Program, the agency turned to Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) for assistance evaluating and developing a plan to help it best serve the needs of kin caregivers throughout the state.

Rebekah Hudgins, GaFCP Evaluation and Results Accountability Team co-leader, participated in the Kinship Navigator Program evaluation. “This program is a vital and valuable service to communities that families and organizations don’t know about,” she said. “We’re working to provide information to strengthen the program and to make sure families are aware that this service is available to them.”

Nine counties were selected in 2019 to be part of Family Connection’s Kin Caregiver Support Cohort. Family Connection Collaboratives in Berrien, Brantley, Douglas, Effingham, Gilmer, Harris, Jefferson, Toombs, and Tri-County (Montgomery, Wheeler, and Treutlen) each received $5,000 from the Health and Human Services funding to serve the kin caregiver population in their communities.

The Collaboratives in the Kin Caregiver Support Cohort were tasked with addressing service gaps through direct services to their kin caregiving families, but in many cases, the COVID-19 pandemic caused funds to be redirected to families’ immediate needs, such as food, rent, and utility bills.

In Berrien County, where 55% of children in DFCS custody are placed with relatives, the pandemic didn’t keep nearly a dozen families from benefitting from an ongoing support group.

Kinship care can be a temporary or permanent arrangement in which a relative or non-relative adult who has a long-standing bond with the child—often referred to as fictive kin—has taken responsibility to raise the child or children when biological parents cannot provide adequate care.

While grandparents make up a majority of kin caregivers in Georgia, aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives also are part of the kin caregiver community. Kinship care arrangements can be informal, such as a private arrangement between the parent and relative that does not involve child welfare, or through legal custody, guardianship order, a relative foster care placement, or kinship adoption. Regardless of the circumstances, kin caregivers face different challenges than non-related foster or adoptive parents.

From the 2020 State of Grandfamilies report, “Facing a Pandemic: Grandfamilies Living Together During COVID-19 and Thriving Beyond”

“The Kinship Navigator Program was a direct response to help this growing population understand what resources and support are available and how to access them,” said DFCS Kinship Director Tacia Spooner. “Grandparents were lobbying and building a visible and vocal coalition around getting support for their population of caregivers. Kin caregivers often feel isolated and overwhelmed in their new and often unexpected role as guardian.”

Support for caregivers is crucial, because research shows that living with a relative can mitigate trauma for the child who has been removed from the home. But it also presents a set of challenges for the kin caregiver who now must manage all that goes into raising a child. For elderly grandparents, some of whom may have health or disability issues, the challenge is even greater.

“Think about a grandmother who hasn’t had a child in the house for years,” Hudgins said. “Now she must get medical records, deal with school, feed and clothe the child. It’s a lot.”

According to the evaluation reported in September 2020, DFCS has seen a 44% increase in children placed out of the home, and attributes Georgia’s opioid crisis as a leading factor influencing the rise in kinship care.

“In a majority of cases, we’re seeing that out-of-home placements are the result of substance abuse and mental health issues,” Spooner said. “That makes the Kinship Navigator Program even more essential.”

The next phase of the Kin Caregiver Cohort will begin in October with Collaboratives in Toombs, Brantley, Jefferson, Berrien, Fulton, and Warren counties. Their work will extend into 2022 with three specific ways in which they can utilize their funding:

  1. support an existing—or create a—kinship support group,
  2. distribute emergency funds for meeting kinship caregivers’ needs, or
  3. pay a stipend to a kin caregiver to act as a liaison with the kin caregiving community.

The Kinship Navigator Program evaluation will continue through FY22 to provide data for improving the program and to assist Kinship staff in assuring fidelity to implementing the program.