In interviews, administrators of alternative kinship care programs reflected on their experiences, identified lessons they had learned in developing and operating their programs, and offered advice to others undertaking similar efforts. While many administrators noted lessons they had learned that were specific to their local sites, they also identified issues or lessons that could apply to any new alternative kinship care program. Lessons for alternative kinship care program developers include:
- Define the target population. One of the first and most challenging steps in developing an alternative kinship care program is defining what segments of the kinship care population to serve. This decision will likely have far reaching implications for how the program will be administered, funded, and staffed. One decision to be made is whether to serve families involved with child welfare, those outside the system, or both. Within child welfare, policy makers must decide whether to target all kin caring for children in state custody, those that cannot or do not want to be licensed, or those in which the state does not take custody. Outside of child welfare, policy makers may consider targeting all kin, those who receive TANF child-only benefits, or those who themselves are low-income. Programs may also seek to target kin outside of child welfare who seek assistance from the system. Policy makers also must decide whether alternative programs are intended to serve only those kin related by blood, marriage, or adoption, or a broader population that includes godparents, family friends, neighbors, or others with a close bond with the child needing care. Finally, alternative programs can focus on serving any or all of the following: the child, the kin caregiver, the extended family, and the birth parents.
- Clearly communicate who the program serves and why. In each of the sites visited that had eligibility requirements for program services, there were kinship caregivers that thought they should be served by the programs but were not eligible. Moreover, often, caregivers felt they met eligibility requirements but were arbitrarily denied services. A common example was in programs that required a child to be adjudicated, kin caregivers noted that they were caring for a child that was abused or neglected and they should also receive assistance even though child welfare had not been involved. Program administrators noted a need for better information dissemination, but also a more clear statement about why the program only served certain kinship care families.
|"The group here tonight, grandparents grandparenting grandchildren, is not unusual. My mom worked, and we did not have access to resources, but it was known that grandparents would take care of grandchildren while mom worked. Now we have access to jobs and mobility, and it has put pressure on the expanded family concept. The extended family concept has broken down, and now you see the stress we experience as grandparents; the concept of swapping in the neighborhood has broken down and is straining our families. So how do we cope in [this] changing environment?"|
- Do not underestimate the need for services. In each of the sites visited, program administrators expressed surprise at the extent and diversity of the needs of kinship care families. As a result, some of the programs expanded very quickly, more quickly than anticipated. Program administrators spoke of the growing pains they experienced not including having sufficient staff and adequate facilities. As programs grew, administrators noted that is was hard to monitor service delivery and in hindsight, would have liked to spend more time up front developing operations procedures and guidelines.
- Remember birth parents. Several administrators acknowledged that their programs need to pay greater attention to birth parents. In some instances birth parents are completely out of the picture, but in many cases, birth parents are coming in and out of their children's lives. These contacts can be confusing and even harmful to children. At the same time, if birth parents express a desire to maintain a bond with their children, agencies may be able to facilitate a more healthy relationship. And of course, child welfare agencies have the responsibility to make reasonable efforts to reunify children with their birth parents.
- Identify those already involved. Program administrators and workers noted that there are already a variety of public agencies and community organizations involved in serving kinship care families. While there certainly are gaps in services, programs noted that many of the needs of kinship care families can be addressed by better coordination of services. In addition, building partnerships was seen as essential for effective outreach to kinship caregivers. Administrators noted the importance of using churches, neighborhood associations, and other community based groups to inform kinship caregivers of available supports.
- Develop a process to convert old cases. In each of the sites visited that provided financial support, the programs decided to provide support not only to new kinship care arrangements, but also to existing arrangements that met eligibility requirements retroactively. Each program ran into difficulty identifying and assessing old cases that could be served by the alternative program.
- Involve mental health agencies. Given the mental health needs of kinship care families, this recommendation is not a surprise. Some program administrators regretted that mental health agencies were often not included in the planning of the programs.
- Get buy-in from the courts. Each of the child welfare administered programs visited had some difficulty getting family court judges to fully understand and support the alternative kinship care program. Some program administrators suggested that they would have been wise to involve the courts earlier in the planning process so that the courts would understand the rationale and goals of the alternative programs.
- Tap into the strengths of private community-based agencies. Administrators noted many advantages to operating alternative kinship care programs through private, community-based organizations. The most cited reason was that public agencies, especially child welfare agencies, are not well regarded by kinship care families. One administrator noted that the person taking the child away should not be the same person helping the family get the child back. In contrast, kinship caregivers noted that private agencies were often part of their community and were there to help them, even when they were under contract from the child welfare system. Administrators also noted that private agencies are not as hampered by administrative regulations and thus have more flexibility in hiring of staff and service delivery. However, if an alternative program is designed primarily to provide financial assistance, administrators believed that the program is best operated by a public agency.