Family Matters: Why finding and engaging extended family and fictive kin is critical to positive outcomes for children in foster care
Written by Scott Leon, PhD
If I asked you to name and describe all the important people in your family, who would you list? Would the list include people other than your parents and siblings, such as an out-of-state aunt who calls on holidays but is the glue behind the scenes helping to resolve family problems? Would it include your grandmother who lives in a nursing home who lights up with joy when you visit and shares uplifting stories of your childhood? What about people outside of your family, like a teacher who saw talents in you before you or anyone else did? We’ve all heard the trope that it takes a village to raise a child. And yet, we can’t help repeating it because its truth is so enduring.
If extended family and fictive kin play important roles in our lives, can the same be said for children in foster care? According to research conducted by me and my research team at Loyola University Chicago, extended family and fictive kin do in fact play an important role in in the lives of children involved in child welfare. Our work has found that children with highly involved kin and fictive kin networks (e.g., visit/call the child, offer respite, provide childcare, help with homework) show significantly better well-being outcomes over time. This effect was even stronger for children with higher levels of CANS individual strengths, suggesting that children’s strengths must be able to meet an involved social network to produce the best outcomes. Other work in our lab found that higher kin and fictive kin network involvement can help to lessen the negative impact of maltreatment on well-being outcomes.
Kin and fictive kin involvement may also impact children’s placement experiences. In one study, our lab found that being placed in an emergency shelter upon entry into care had negative impacts on children’s long-term well-being. But, this finding only applied to children with less kin and fictive kin involvement. Children with higher levels of kin and fictive kin involvement who were placed in an emergency shelter did not experience the same negative well-being outcomes. Children often report feeling isolated and abandoned as a result of placement a congregate care settings such as an emergency shelter. It might be that these feelings of isolation and abandonment are lessened if the child knows that they have a strong social network, even if no one in the network is currently available to be a placement. In terms of placement stability, our work has found that children with higher kin and fictive kin involvement were less likely to experience placement disruptions.
If extra-placement kin and fictive kin play key roles in foster care children’s lives, what is typical casework practice doing to engage families to the benefit of children’s well-being, safety, placement stability and permanency goals? Unfortunately, typical casework practice does very little to discover and engage children’s kin and fictive kin networks. In 2015, we completed a four-year evaluation of a family finding program designed to discover and engage families of children placed in foster care from Cook County, Illinois. Compared to a control group, the intervention identified 75% more kin and fictive kin. This led to better concurrent planning and higher rates of placement with kin and fictive kin among the children in the intervention group. However, these results were only realized because the intervention hired and trained a team of specialists with the singular responsibility of finding and engaging kin and fictive kin.
Our conversations with the caseworkers led us to believe that, at least for now, typical casework practice will not accommodate family finding. Traditionally, caseworkers have been trained for decades to focus almost single-mindedly on three goals: find a placement, keep the placement, and work the permanency plan. Many caseworkers in our studies expressed the understandable concern that engaging family members to provide support to the child, foster parent and biological parent would expose and aggravate simmering dysfunctional family dynamics that would only make things worse. In our view, requiring caseworkers to do this work without changing casework practice policies, incentives, and training from the top down would be doomed for failure from the start.
Instead, we advocate for independent family finding specialists to do the work of finding and engaging extra-placement kin and fictive kin to support the child and their placement / permanency goals. These teams will work to uncover supports that busy caseworkers may miss as they attend to other case goals and find ways for these supports to help the child, foster parent, and biological parent be successful. They should be trained in how to work with challenging family dynamics to help remove barriers that may interfere with family involvement. The family support network information obtained by the specialists would then feed directly to caseworkers to help fulfill the goals of the case plan. However, none of this can happen if we don’t recognize the importance of family for kids in foster care. We know that family matters for us. It’s time for us to see that it matters for them.
This post is written by Dr. Scott Leon, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Loyola University Chicago. Dr. Leon earned his Ph.D in Clinical Psychology from Northwestern University Medical School in June 2002. During his graduate studies, he developed research interests in mental health services evaluation. Dr. Leon’s published work has primarily focused on the mental health and placement outcomes of youth in the child welfare system.