Pennsylvania County Fills Foster Family Gap with Relatives

As jurisdictions across the country scramble to find enough foster homes, one Pennsylvania county has found success by relying on relative caregivers.

In Allegheny County, home to the Pittsburgh metropolitan area, a unique partnership with a private agency has led to a special emphasis on placing children with family or close family friends, yielding benefits across the child protective services system.

Placing children with grandparents, relatives and close family friends (also known as fictive kin) has long been part of the child welfare playbook. Some studies have shown that children in relative care are less likely to experience behavioral issues and fewer school disruptions than others in foster care.

The federal government has encouraged the use of relative caregivers in recent years through provisions in the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act and the Administration for Children and Families’ Family Connection Grants.

But despite some evidence of increased stability and well being, many jurisdictions do not have such a strong record of placing children with relative caregivers.

Director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Marc Cherna

Director of the Allegheny County Department of Human Services Marc Cherna.

According to the most recent national data available through the government’s Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), 29 percent of children in foster care across the country are currently living in the home of a relative. That number is well below the 46 percent of children and youth who reside in the home of a stranger, or non-relative. In Allegheny county, the numbers are flipped, with more than half of foster children and youth living with relatives or so-called fictive kin.

Relative caregivers are often hampered by unequal pay and a perceived second-class status in many states and counties, but in Allegheny County this group is considered the cornerstone of the county’s foster care program, according to Department of Human Services Director Marc Cherna.

Under Cherna’s watch, the county has dramatically increased its use of relative caregivers, while also seeing a steep decline in the number of children in care.

When Cherna came to town in 1996, Allegheny County was reeling from scandal and a system struggling to deal with the kids in its care.

“The caseloads were exploding and kids were dying,” Cherna said.

The county had 3,318 kids in care, he says, about 20 percent of them placed with relatives.

Allegheny County now has 1,285 kids in its child welfare system, and 55 percent of them with relative caregivers, though that number has soared even higher in the recent past.

Cherna calls a preference for relative care a “no brainer.”

“If you had to be taken away from your family, what would be less traumatic – to go with your grandparents or aunts and uncles who love you and care for you or with strangers, even if they’re well intentioned?” he said.

Beyond the considerations of child trauma, Cherna says that an investment in supporting relative caregivers has made the county less reliant on stranger homes, allowing it more time to find the best placement for a child. 

“Many jurisdictions across the country have this philosophy of ‘find me a bed, any bed,’” Cherna said. “Kids are sleeping in offices, and you don’t get the most appropriate placement; you’re just trying to find a place to stick a child. With relatives, we don’t have to do that.”

Cherna notes that Allegheny County has slashed the number of children in congregate care by nearly 75 percent during his time in office. Today only 11 percent of children in the county’s system are in group homes or in shelter care, a change that he attributes to the county’s reliance on relative caregivers.

Cherna attributes some of that success to his long time at the helm of Allegheny County. The average tenure of a child welfare agency director is about three years, according to a 2004 survey by the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators. Staying in the job for 20 years, as Cherna has done, has led to more opportunities to implement reform.

But the longtime leader is also quick to credit his partnership with Sharon McDaniel, founder and CEO of A Second Chance, a nonprofit that handles 95 percent of Allegheny County’s relative caregiver placements.

Sharon McDaniel, founder, president and CEO of A Second Chance

Sharon McDaniel, founder, president and CEO of A Second Chance.

McDaniel has been working in relative care in the county even longer than Cherna, since 1994. The county once had a bifurcated system, with both Allegheny County and private agencies providing support and training to relatives. But for the past five years, A Second Chance has been Allegheny County’s sole relative caregiver provider.

McDaniel says that a shared understanding of family has led to a decades-long success with relative caregivers.

“Marc and I have an extraordinary partnership, and that’s really what makes it work,” McDaniel said.

But for McDaniel, her work at A Second Chance is more than just contracts. For her, it’s also personal history.

McDaniel entered the child welfare system in Pittsburgh herself at age 6.

By the time she graduated high school, McDaniel had spent time in a group home for girls and had lived in nearly half a dozen homes with families that weren’t her own.

But McDaniel’s rocky childhood was steadied by the presence of several fictive caregivers (not blood relatives, but part of her extended family).

In On My Way Home – A Memoir of Kinship, Grace, and Hope, a memoir of her time in care, McDaniel writes of the Sunday dinners hosted by caregivers she called her grandparents. Across a dinner table piled high with soul food, McDaniel and her sister experienced a warm sense of belonging, identity and culture during a time of uncertainty.

“Because I grew up in the system myself with people who were in my dad’s extended family, I understand that personally in terms of this whole notion that children fare better with people they know,” McDaniel said.

Since her time in care, McDaniel has made understanding how to work with family members a key part of her work, from her time as a frontline worker in Allegheny County’s child welfare system to her work at A Second Chance.

“Sometimes families are viewed with a pathological lens; there must be something wrong with every member of the family because somebody’s involved with the child welfare system,” McDaniel said. “Every family has their challenges, but you can find great champions within families that can step up and do a good job to address the issues and the crisis that the family members are dealing with at that time.”

Under McDaniel, A Second Chance has emphasized permanency with relative caregivers, though does not encourage family members to adopt unless the situation is right. Allegheny County families are licensed as foster caregivers using the same standards as traditional caregivers.

After Allegheny County finds a family member for a child recently removed from his or her home, Cherna’s agency conducts preliminary safety and background checks. Then A Second Chance steps in, and uses an in-depth assessment tool to determine the best opportunities for relative care.

“You go deeper in from the beginning to know if Grandma is going to adopt or not, or she’s going to be a subsidized guardianship caregiver,” McDaniel said. “We talk about permanency with kinship caregivers from day one, something you don’t hear a lot of systems talking about.”

McDaniel and her team have developed a sense of the unique dynamics of relative caregivers, and how to respect the needs and expertise of family members.

Once a caregiver is identified, A Second Chance sets up 15-day planning meetings with family members and assigns them roles to assist the caregiver. One family might be charged with taking a youngster to her basketball practices while another would be helping coordinate medical appointments, for example.

McDaniel says A Second Chance has served more than 15,000 children and youth in 22 years, and the vast majority return to their families. But McDaniel says that child welfare systems across the country are still reluctant to invest in the support that would help families in crisis succeed.

“The reason why children in kinship placement are failing is because systems are not providing the robust support strategies and the financial resources that grandma and aunt need to survive. They’re already living on the margins.”

For Cherna, Allegheny’s longtime child-welfare leader, the cost of buying smoke detectors and extra beds for relative caregivers is a small price to pay.

“Relatives should get all the benefits that any other type of parent would get because we feel very strongly that the money should end up with the child,” Cherna said. “It doesn’t cost any less for a relative to take care of a child.”

“It’s a philosophy of how you treat people. Right now, we can pass [the child] to a relative and say goodbye.”

Sharon McDaniels of A Second Chance, second from left, preps for a panel hosted by Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and Fostering Media Connections (publisher of The Imprint) on May 11, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Erica Baker

Sharon McDaniel of A Second Chance, second from left, preps for a panel hosted by Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute and Fostering Media Connections (publisher of The Imprint) on May 11, 2016 in Washington, D.C. Photo: Erica Baker

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