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Belonging: The Crossroad of Foster and Kinship Care

Posted:  -  By: Christina Feerick

For the Month of May, Foster Care Month, Voices will feature guest blogs from organizations that are a part of our Foster Care Unified Policy Network.

Belonging: The Crossroad of Foster and Kinship Care

By Cate Hawks — Executive Director, NewFound Families-Virginia

I once had a sit down with a young woman I had come to know through our camp program. She was living with a loving and remarkable foster family that regularly came to our camp. She let me know she wouldn’t be coming back to our camp, because her aunt wanted her to come live with her. That night at the campfire she approached me and let me know that she had really wanted to sing during the talent show. I asked her what song she wanted to sing. It was Carrie Underwood’s song, “Temporary Home.”

“This is my Temporary Home, it’s not where I belong Windows and rooms that I’m passing through This is just a stop on the way to where I’m going. I’m not afraid because I know this is my temporary home. “

At the end of her amazing solo, this young woman looked at me, both of us with tears in our eyes, and she said, “I just want to belong. I think I will belong with my Aunt.”

Children need a sense of belonging in order to develop connections that will sustain them through their life’s journey. Kinship care is one way for us to give children back a feeling of belonging within our social structure following the devastation of childhood abuse, neglect, or abandonment. These are children who have survived the trauma of abuse, neglect, or abandonment. They need an anchor, a constant.

In the late 1970s, a permanency movement was established in the U.S. It was based on research documenting that children need continuity of parenting, commitment by a parent to provide the continuity, and the legal and social status that comes from having a family of one’s own. Children’s sense of belonging as well as social and cultural identity comes from permanency, typically developed with birth parents. The premise of kinship care: children should grow up with relatives, members of their tribes, or a family who has a healthy kin-like relationship with the child.

When British social psychologist Henri Tajfel wrote the “Theory of Social Belonging,” he explained the essential role of family in social structure. His theory, based on observation of people and interactions, was that social identity is an important source of self-­‐pride and esteem. It is our self-identity that gives us a sense of belonging to the social world. Our first experience with social identity stems from our birth families or our first caregivers.

With the passage of the federal Family First requirements at the state level, thanks to the efforts of state lawmakers as well as advocates, like Voices for Virginia’s Children and families that spent time educating their lawmakers, we now stand at a crossroad for implementing a profound system of care that can include lifetime connections for children. Our system has been legislatively empowered to encourage foster and kinship caregivers to partner in the care of children. This new prevention posture can allow children to experience connections that last a lifetime. Family First may be just the opportunity we need to make this shift in our efforts to broaden the safety net for children. Utilizing our vast resource of amazing foster parents to help not only build up children, but build up families.

Children from these hard places need foster parent SUPERHEROES; Kinship parents need SUPERHEROES, too. They need foster parents in their corner helping them understand the needs of the child who has been separated from them. Kinship caregivers need foster parents able to mentor them through the rough patches. Kinship caregivers seldom get the benefit of training or other essential supports. Foster parents can be that lifeline of support for kinship caregivers. Foster parents could share parenting strategies as well as the explain the challenges children are experiencing. The development of such a relationship extends agency training investments in foster parents and bridges the transition for children from foster care to kinship care.

A role defined for both foster parents and kinship caregivers in the permanency pathway may lead to LESS resistance and MORE resources for children. When we include both foster and kinship caregivers at the family engagement table there is a greater opportunity for children receive the care and support they need. Each can add intrinsic value to a child’s resilience, health, and development.

Perhaps it is time for a shift in our foster parent recruitment strategy. A new strategy utilizing foster parents as parent-to-parent mentors for birth parents and for kinship caregivers. Most foster families spend a great deal of time healing children, nurturing children only to be told the harsh reality…this is not your child and you have no say in their future. This has been leading many foster parents to stop the cycle of grief and leave foster care. Now the time, inclination, and funding may be available to alter our foster care path. We may now be able to implement strategies that encourage lifetime connections between families, so that children have a variety of caring adults dedicated to their safety, support, and development. A new strategy of recruiting and developing foster families who are interested, willing, and able to invest in the fostering of birth parents and kinship caregivers may help to better support family reunification or placement with relatives as the successful and supported permanency option.

The bottom line is that children need permanency. These homes must be adequately prepared to meet a child’s individual needs regardless of whether it is with birth, relative/kin, or adoptive families. When we look at what is best for children we will find some do better through family reunification, others may benefit more from placement with relatives, and others from the permanency offered through adoption. An essential element to a child’s success is placement with a family who will be there for them as they reach to achieve a meaningful life with meaningful relationships…a family where a child finds the place where they belong.

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