Leading Kinship Care and a Vision for the Future
The Department of Children and Families' improvements to kinship care - when a child in care is placed with a relative or someone else the child knows -- flowed from larger changes to the overall foster care system, said Tina Jefferson, the Bureau Chief of Child Welfare, and Natalia Liriano, the Statewide Director of Foster Care.
First and foremost, the pair said, bringing foster care staff under the management of the Child Welfare Bureau created a more uniform culture and practice of support for kinship care among the Department's six regions.
Ms. Liriano said this centralization creates greater consistency in approach and a more integrated effort overall. "With foster care no longer separated from child welfare, the conversations about kinship care are no longer siloed," she said. "We have a stronger sense of team and bringing all the regions and central office under [the Child Welfare Bureau] creates greater consistency and helps us look at all the systems issues and have better work all around."
Ms. Jefferson credited Ms. Liriano's leadership for many improvements to kinship care statewide. "Natalia's leadership as Statewide Director of Foster Care has helped us create a stronger culture," said Ms. Jefferson. "That in turn creates greater consistency of practice across the six regions. It's no longer six different ways of doing things."
One example of an improved process resulting from centralization is how the Department handles waivers for licensing prospective caregivers who have a previous substantiation. The decision about whether the substantiation can be waived to allow licensure now rests with the Department's legal division - thereby providing greater consistency in handling the waiver requests.
"Now you have one way of interpreting when a family should get a waiver," Ms. Jefferson said. "We now have greater consistency for families and staff regarding what qualifies as suitability to be licensed. This will help us increase kinship placements," Ms. Jefferson added.
Ms. Liriano said the new structure also empowered staff to talk with regions that had lower levels of placement with kin compared to the statewide average - which stood at 42.8% in July 2021.
The Department has added to these gains the last two years - specifically by increasing by 10% the children who enter care the first time and live with kin. Of those who enter care the first time, 51.9% lived with kin in State Fiscal Year 2021 compared to 41.6% in 2019. In addition, the number of children achieving permanency through guardianship is on pace this year to exceed the 2019 number.
The Department's Quality Parenting Initiative - an approach to caregivers and biological parents grounded in strong relationships and valuing the partnership of caregivers in working with the Department to help biological families reunify with their children -- enables the agency to build better relations with kinship providers, they said. Kinship care is stronger as a result of this improved relationship.
"It's a family-centered approach that's about relationships," said Ms. Liriano. "This helped us change the dynamic from 'do what I say' to a dynamic of cooperation and partnership."
Or as Ms. Jefferson said, "The caregiver is a full partner in every decision."
Ms. Liriano said that while important improvements have been established, the Department wants to make further progress.
One of the new activities is called kinship navigator, which is a process to improve how the Department provides services to kinship families. "Kinship navigator will connect the right services to kinship families based on what they specifically need," said Ms. Liriano. Work is currently underway with Chapin Hall, an organization that provides expert consultation to child welfare agencies across the country, to develop kinship navigator, which initially was spawned by the Department's Family First prevention initiative. In keeping with Family First's prevention focus, kinship navigator will help families regardless of whether or not they are involved with the Department, Ms. Liriano said.
The Department's recently launched faith-based initiative is another new program that promises to enhance and expand kinship care. The Department is working with churches in Hartford and New Haven to find new caregivers, including kinship families, and, importantly, to support existing kinship families.
"The faith-based work is about connecting families with a faith-based organization to get resources the family needs," Ms. Liriano said. "It's about support and building the community response to helping the family, even after licensure and placement."
Ms. Jefferson emphasized her appreciation of staff and families for the many changes that have and will occur.
"Our foster care staff, our child protection staff, and our families have all done so much strong work together to advance kinship care," said Ms. Jefferson. "As a result, we truly believe that children will be better off."
Ms. Liriano said it is especially impressive because staff and families had to do this work during a deadly pandemic that upset seemingly everything. "It required everyone's flexibility and adapting to a new normal," she said, citing as one example how the Department can train caregivers using virtual technologies.
Ms. Jefferson concluded by saying that while kinship care is critical, this in no way detracts from the contributions made by "core" or traditional foster homes.
"We'll always need our core caregivers," she said. "But we also need a strong kinship care program in order to have a strong foster care system overall."