(NewsNation) — Thirty years ago, Victoria Gray received a phone call saying her granddaughter Evaughn was going into foster care.
“We didn’t know she existed,” Gray said.
It was her son Vaughn’s child. He was on the street, doing drugs, and he conceived Evaughn with a woman who was also homeless and an addict.
Evaughn was only a few months old when Gray got the call. The baby had extensive medical problems: She was born with syphilis, herpes and gonorrhea and had two holes in her heart.
Gray didn’t leave Evaughn alone in foster care. Instead, she decided to step in and raise the child herself. Months after she made that call, a court ordered the foster care agency to place Evaughn with Gray.
Gray’s custody of Evaughn bucked a trend back then, one that is still going strong in many states. Agencies can place foster children with relatives or close friends.
But for decades, many states barely used the practice, called “kinship care.” Most of the country’s 424,000 foster children live with adults with whom they share no family ties.
Now several states are finding ways to pair children with family or friends, emboldened by research that shows foster kids fare better with people with whom they already have a bond.
“I helped her do all of these things that I don’t think a foster parent would have done for her. … You’re not invested in that,” Gray said. “But for me, it was my granddaughter.”
A Tactic That Works, A System That Works Against It
Close friends or family are more likely to give foster children stable lives, said Angie Nickell, the associate director of new programming/kinship caregiving for the University of Missouri’s Parentlink, which provides support to kinship caregivers throughout her state.
With relatives, there’s less trauma for children when they’re put into the system, Nickell said. Plus, they aren’t as likely to be moved to different schools or communities, and as a result they have better mental health and do better in school.
But kinship care hasn’t caught on as much as it could because many foster care systems are designed to favor traditional, licensed foster parents.
“What we would hear a lot of is, ‘Oh, grandma wants to take this child? She’s no better than the mom,” said Michael Williams, deputy commissioner at the Connecticut Department of Children and Families.
There are circumstances where relatives shouldn’t be foster parents. They are often part of the problem that has led to a child being placed in foster care. But Williams said that reason became a bias that cut across racial and class lines and unfairly ignored families that could help.
Connecticut used kinship care in 17 percent of its cases in 2010, but made it easier to place kids with relative caregivers. Now, around four in 10 children are placed with relatives.
Connecticut officials emphasized that this growth in kinship care utilization comes with adequate safeguards. The state does a background check and reviews the homes of kinship applicants.
Kinship caregivers then go through a series of trainings and are expected to become licensed caregivers, said Ken Mysogland, bureau chief of external affairs for Connecticut’s Department of Children and Families.
There are other ways the system works against families. Marie Zemler Wu, executive director of the advocacy group Foster America, said child welfare agencies also don’t know a child’s extended family well enough to determine whether they should raise a child.
Instead, these agencies rely on a set of vetted and licensed foster parents that they know will provide a safe home, Zemler Wu said.
Some states also pay less to kinship caregivers than licensed foster care parents.
Gray had that experience in her state, Arizona. She said she got a small payment in the low double digits to pay for diapers for Evaughn.
She later adopted Evaughn’s half-brother, Isaiah, and became a licensed foster parent in order to retain custody. After that, Gray said her funding from the state increased to hundreds of dollars a month.
The numbers have changed over 30 years. But that pay disparity still exists in Arizona. Licensed foster parents today receive a monthly stipend of around $700 per child. Meanwhile, relative caregivers get $75 a month.
Although the process is different in every state, it’s usually easier to become a kinship caregiver as opposed to a traditional licensed foster care parent. In Arizona, for instance, kinship caregivers are evaluated by the Department of Child Safety, but to become a licensed foster parent, you must also take a series of classes.
Clearing Barriers for Friends and Family
More states are peeling away obstacles to kinship care due in part to the evidence supporting it, a shortage of licensed foster parents and input from children themselves, said Jennifer Miller, a child advocate at ChildFocus, who has spent more than 30 years working on child welfare issues.
In South Carolina, for example, 10 percent of children in foster care were placed with relatives. So legislators wrote a bill that was recently signed into law that will make it easier for close family friends to be licensed as foster parents. It will also open state resources to relatives and family friends who are in the process of getting licensed as foster care parents, not requiring them to get fully licensed before getting assistance.
New Mexico started focusing on kinship care around 2019. It created a dedicated kinship care unit, overhauled its kinship care licensing process, used software to better locate families, expanded family support services to relatives, piloted specific kinship care services in several counties, and began requiring a manager’s approval for placements with nonrelatives.
It went from about 3 percent of foster children being placed with family and friends in 2019 to nearly 50 percent in 2021, said Emily Martin, bureau chief at New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families Department.
As for Evaughn, hers is a kinship care success story. She grew up to be a working adult who now has children of her own. Isaiah works in construction, a job that frequently keeps him on the road. Vaughn, their father, successfully went through rehab and now stays in touch with the family.
The experience helped push Gray to become an advocate for other kinship families and work with others to persuade the state government to narrow the gap in support between traditional foster parents and kinship caregivers.
“We’re working very diligently on trying to get it changed,” Gray said. “You’d be surprised at how many people don’t understand what the problem is or have never heard of kinship. They didn’t even know it was going on. And I’m talking about legislators!”
Despite the challenges she faced over the years, Gray persisted. In addition to her three biological children, she has fostered 41 children and adopted seven of her grandchildren. Her last set of children turned 18 in February.