Every year, 400,000 children enter the foster care system. Less well-known is the large number of children who are removed from their homes but informally placed with loving grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives. About 2.485 million children are raised in grandfamilies or kinship care. Not only does kinship care save billions of dollars for taxpayers, but also children who live with extended family members are more likely than foster youth to have health, mental, economic and educational stability. These youth are also more likely to stay with siblings and retain their cultural and neighborhood connections. Yet, despite these benefits, kinship providers do not receive as much financial support or post-placement services from policy programs. And, kinship caregivers still face the challenges of helping youth who have experienced the trauma of parental separation. Today, the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth, co-chaired by Sens. Chuck Grassley and Debbie Stabenow, sponsored a panel discussion on kinship care that allowed foster youth alumni and caregivers to share their experiences. It was also an effort to discuss ways to enhance policies and break down barriers to support kinship caregivers.
Participants in the Kinship Care panel included:
Donna Butts –Generations United
Donna Butts is the Executive Director of Generations United, a position she has held since 1997. For nearly three decades, Generations United has been the catalyst for policies and practices stimulating cooperation and collaboration among generations, evoking the vibrancy, energy and sheer productivity that result when people of all ages come together. In 2014, Ms. Butts was honored to be named to the NonProfit Times Power and Influence Top 50 for the third year in a row. In 1998 she was appointed by then DHHS Secretary Donna Shalala to serve on the National Kinship Advisory Panel. She is a respected author and speaker who serves on several boards including the International Consortium for Intergenerational Programmes, the National Human Services Assembly and the Journal on Intergenerational Relationships. She is a graduate of Stanford University’s Executive Program for Non-Profit Leaders. Ms. Butts was honored with the 2004 National Council o0n the Aging’s Jack Ossofsky award for leadership, creativity and innovation in programs and services for older persons and the 2014 Seabury Leadership in Aging Award. She served as an at large delegate to the 2005 White House Conference on Aging and has been invited by the United Nations to sit on four expert panels on intergenerational solidarity and other issues. Ms. Butts has over 35 years of experience working with non-profit organizations including Covenant House, the YWCA and National 4-H Council.
JJ Hitch – Alumnus of Kinship Foster Care
JJ Hitch and his three siblings lived in their parent’s violent and abusive home, until their loving grandparents stepped in to care for them. JJ’s grandfather was 72 at the time and just retired after 49 years with Chrysler, while his grandmother was 62 and still working. “Suddenly my grandparents had complete responsibility for four kids.” The expenses were incredible. JJ’s grandparents had to buy bedroom furniture, clothes, food for four growing kids. “Their income was very limited so it was extremely difficult for them.” For three years, JJ’s grandparents received some public benefits for caring for the children, but the benefits were far less than those of licensed foster parents.
“I realized it was important that we stay with our grandparents because they would be a loving, positive presence.” By 14, when his grandparents started caring for him, JJ was already very troubled and had internalized a lot of pain. “I knew that I looked bad on paper and that a regular foster family wouldn’t take me in. I figured I’d be heading for a group home where the living conditions would just have ignited the troubled behavior I was already hardwired for.”
His grandparents eventually adopted all four children, but the path was a long one that hurt them financially. Today, JJ is 28 and has recently graduated with a Master’s degree in communications. He is also helping care for his grandmother.
Linda James – Kinship Caregiver and Advocate
Linda James quit her job in 1987 to become the full time caregiver for her granddaughter and grandson, raising them since they were infants. As her grandchildren got older, Linda began doing advocacy work on behalf of families like hers. For almost 20 years, she has worked for the Family Resource Center, which provides supportive and informational groups to kinship caregivers. She has also worked with the University of Rochester on a kinship care mentor program training manual, which has been recognized as a replicate model by the National Council on Aging. Ms. James serves on the board of the National Kinship Alliance for Children, a national grassroots advocacy group for kinship families. She has received numerous recognitions and awards, including the Casey Family Programs 2011 Kinship Care Constituent Award and the 2013 New York State African American Public Service Award. Most importantly to Ms. James, her grandchildren are now in their twenties and thriving.
Ta'Kijah Randolph – Alumna of Kinship Foster Care
Ta’Kijah “Ty” Randolph is a recent graduate from Long Beach State University where she majored in Communication Studies and minored in Africana Studies. Ty is also a foster care alumna. She spent close to nine years in the foster care system and eventually aged out of it at 18. During her first four years in foster care, Ty was placed in the homes of individuals she was not related to, however, her last five years were with her maternal grandparents. Her grandparents fought for Ty to live with them and she is so glad they did.
Ty thinks that living with her relatives was the best thing that could have happened to her. They provided familiarity and treated her lovingly. It was her grandparents that provided her with the support she needed to go to college and follow her dreams. Ty spent most of her college career telling her story about her experiences to youth, adults and advocacy groups. It was in her senior year of college that she was urged to apply for the CCAI Foster Youth Internship™ Program. Through her participation in the program, her eyes were opened to the world of policymaking and think tanks surrounding children in need.
During the internship, Ty researched and wrote on “Special Education and Mental Health Needs: Improving Outcomes for Foster Youth” in the 2014 Foster Youth Internship™ Program Report to Congress, “Shaping the Future With today’s Minds: Applying Updated Solutions to an Outdated System.” Through her research for the article, Ty ignited her passion to work on policy efforts to upgrade the child welfare system. After the CCAI Foster Youth Internship Program™, Ty was accepted as a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Emerging Leader Intern and just recently Ty accepted a position in Rep. Karen Bass’s office. Ty hopes to continue her career on Capitol Hill where she can work on policies to help change the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in America.
Meredith Matone –PolicyLab at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
Meredith Matone is a research scientist at PolicyLab at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). Ms. Matone's research interests include health service delivery to child welfare populations and families at risk for maladaptive parenting. At PolicyLab, Ms. Matone leads a statewide evaluation of federally funded home visitation programs for at-risk families of young children in Pennsylvania. Ms. Matone formerly served as project director for a research portfolio related to behavioral health needs and service use among child welfare and Medicaid enrolled youth. Prior to PolicyLab, Ms. Matone also served on the strategic planning and evaluation teams for an infant mortality initiative in Baltimore City. Ms. Matone is currently pursuing her Doctor of Public Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is a Master of Health Science graduate of the school.
Nichole Cobbs-Sterns- DC Child and Family Services Agency
Nichole Cobbs-Sterns currently serves as the Interim Administrator for the Kinship and Placement Administration at DC Child and Family Services Agency. A graduate of Howard University with a degree in Masters of Social Work, she has worked her entire career in child welfare. Ms. Cobbs-Sterns started as a social worker in 1996 and has for the last 19 years dedicated her career to the children/youth in the District of Columbia to ensure their needs are met. At present, she is leading her Administration in achieving the guiding principles set forth by the CFSA Four Pillars which are: Front Door (families’ together removal only when necessary), Temporary Safe Haven (plan for permanency from day one), Well-Being (healthy growth and development) and Exit to Permanency (forever home and family productive adulthood).
Dolores Bryant –The Children’s Home Society of New Jersey and Kinship Caregiver
Dolores Bryant is the director of operations for kinship and school-based services at The Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, where she has been for sixteen years. During her tenure she has successfully developed and implemented several start-up projects including the federally funded Kinship Connections Program and the GrandFamily Success Center. Ms. Bryant is a licensed clinical social worker. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Douglass College and a Masters in Social Work degree from Rutgers University. Prior to becoming a social worker, she worked in the criminal justice field as a parole officer. Ms. Bryant has over 20 years of experience working with children and families. She is the mother of one daughter and has been a kinship caregiver for several nieces and nephews.