While examples of family members or friends taking care of a child because a parent was not available can be found in every part of the world since the dawn of time, only in the last decade or so has this arrangement been more formally identified as “kinship care” in South Carolina.
“[The South Carolina Department of Social Services] had already been placing children with families for a long time; it just really wasn’t being called that,” says Kim Clifton, who was hired in 2005 as the first executive director of HALOS, a nonprofit that supports kinship caregivers in and around Charleston. “Children were either removed from homes and placed into foster care, or the parents would voluntarily place a child with grandparents or others to look after.
“If they were diverted to a family member, they weren’t considered part of the foster care system, and didn’t receive any benefits. Then, as now, we find many kinship caregivers feel overwhelmed by their new responsibilities and don’t know where to turn for resources or that resources are even available.”
All of that started to change in 2016 with the settlement of a class action lawsuit regarding South Carolina’s foster care system that recommended a variety of changes including the prioritization of kin as the first placement option, an emphasis on providing more support for kinship providers, and helping them become licensed.
“There has been a concerted effort here at DSS to grow our kinship care program by aggressively adjusting and streamlining regulations,” says Dawn Barton, the agency’s director of permanency. “In 2018, you could count the number of kinship licenses on one hand, but today there are 253 licensed families, and an additional 119 who are in the licensing process.”
This is great news for children in these situations, as study after study has shown that children fare better when placed with family or friends with whom they already share a bond than in foster care. Kin already have an emotional connection with these children, know their culture, their family history, and are more likely to ensure they remain in contact with siblings and extended family members.
What’s more, kinship care placements provide decreased trauma, increased placement stability, and a better chance to find a permanent home that would remove them from the foster care system altogether. Ultimately, these benefits lead to improved behavioral outcomes and brighter futures.
Barton says that education about kinship care is key for parents as well as for those involved in the child’s care.
Parents need to know that their children don’t have to be placed in a strange home. Kinship placement is an option if a family member or friend can be identified and pass the background and home inspections.
Foster Care Review Board members and Guardians ad Litem should also know about these options so they can advocate for the child and possibly help get them placed in a more familiar environment where they may experience less trauma and more stability.
“During reviews, it’s important to ask parents again if they have family members or fictive kin that can help,” says Barton. “They can also ask whether the CLEAR Search was completed when the child entered foster care, and if so, how long it has been since a new CLEAR Search has been run to see if any new names might appear.”
Clifton adds that we all need to be cognizant of the special needs kinship caregivers have and be able to recognize when they are struggling. More importantly, we need to know where to point them for help.
“Unlike foster parents who have made a deliberate decision to help and already have a plan in place, Grandma can get a call one day and suddenly find herself in the deep end. We must acknowledge the great family upheaval they’re experiencing. They are dealing with what’s happened to their son or daughter, taking care of a grandchild whose been traumatized, buying food and clothes, getting the child to school, helping with homework, taking them to doctor and therapy appointments, and much more.
“We need to stop and take a moment to find out what resources have been offered, what is still needed, and how can we get them connected so they have the support they need.”
Here are the basics you should know about kinship care:
Who is considered kin?
Kinship care is when someone who already knows the child (other than a parent) is taking care of that child. In many cases it is a grandparent, aunt, uncle, or other family member. But the definition of “kin” was recently expanded to include “fictive kin,” which includes anyone who shares an emotional bond with the child but is not related by blood, marriage, or adoption.
Informal vs. formal kinship care
In informal kinship care placements, parents retain legal custody, but help decide who will take care of their child. They must also agree to the safety plan (if they don’t, the child may be removed into DSS custody). The kinship caregiver in this situation does not receive any state or federal benefits or assistance in providing for the child.
However, when law enforcement or a judge decides the child needs to be formally removed from their parent’s custody via emergency protective custody or an ex parte court proceeding, DSS is given legal custody and is responsible for finding a licensed caregiver. While DSS can ask parents who might be able to provide care, they are also required by DSS policy to perform a CLEAR Search to identify possible kin placements and to engage those individuals to assess for placement.
Since most of those identified are not already licensed, a provisional license can be granted as soon as the caregiver passes background and home safety checks. They will then have 90 days to complete the licensing process if they choose to do so.
In instances where DSS is given custody and finds a kin caregiver who declines to be licensed, the case goes before a judge who may allow a court-ordered unlicensed placement.
Why get licensed?
Kinship caregivers are not required to be licensed, but there are many advantages, the biggest of which is receiving the monthly “board rate” payment to help cover the costs of raising the child. Other possible benefits include Medicaid coverage, daycare vouchers, WIC vouchers, and even a clothing stipend for each child.
Additionally, if a kinship caregiver ends up adopting the child, they will receive the monthly adoption subsidy until the child turns 18.
Licensed or not, there are other several nonprofit organizations in South Carolina (listed at the bottom of this story) that can help provide additional resources and support for kinship providers.
What is the process for becoming licensed?
Kinship caregivers who are interested in becoming licensed should contact a DSS Kinship Care Coordinator. In addition to walking families through the process, coordinators are available to answer questions, find resources, and advocate for kinship caregivers and the children they are supporting.
The process typically takes about 90 days, however much of that depends on the family, and how quickly they submit the necessary forms.
Overcoming barriers to licensing
While kinship licensing standards are just as stringent as those for regular licensed foster parents, some non-safety related requirements can be waived to make the process more accessible. For instance, kinship caregivers are not required to complete the 14-hours of training that are compulsory for foster parents.
There are also no fees associated with licensure, and in fact, DSS can provide kinship caregivers with funds to purchase certain items to help them become licensed, such as beds, smoke detectors, and fire extinguishers.
“We have tried to bust down every barrier we can think of that is not safety related to expedite the process, but there is still a lot that can be done to ensure kinship placements are consistently the number one placement option,” says Barton. “We need everyone on the child and families team to help us continue to make this shift.”
Learn more and find resources
To learn more about kinship care in South Carolina, visit https://dss.sc.gov/prevention/kinship-care.
To find resources and support for kinship care providers, visit:
Article by Rob Schaller
Photo credit: Gritsiv Oleksandr