Despite the high-profile death of a Minnesota toddler placed with a family friend, research shows kinship care placements are generally safe for children, and can minimize their trauma
The devastating 2018 killing of Minnesota toddler Layla Jackson in the home of a close family friend where she was placed by the local child welfare authorities brought on headlines, a wrongful death lawsuit and a 30-year prison sentence for the man accused of her murder.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Hennepin and Scott counties are under the microscope for failing to protect Layla in foster care while her mother battled a child maltreatment case in court. Although child welfare experts fear kinship caregiving arrangements may now be viewed more skeptically — as is often the case following tragic, high-profile deaths — research shows no indication that children are more likely to be harmed when placed with relatives or close kin. And there are currently no local policy shifts expected that would make placing children with kin caregivers more difficult, county officials told The Imprint.
With limited resources available, Hennepin County’s director of children and family services Joan Granger-Kopesky said social workers have to make careful, case-specific decisions on where to place children, while weighing the importance of family members’ involvement in their care and custody. Granger-Kopesky could not comment on Layla’s case, but said in general, reactive media coverage and pressure for policy changes can leave them feeling fearful. Some even question whether they can stay in the field.
Yet even when there are heartbreaking outcomes for children, she added, most frontline caseworkers do not have their confidence shaken, knowing there are no 100% certainties in the often-murky world of child welfare work.
“We operate in the gray,” Granger-Kopesky said. “I don’t know many workers that do something and they feel really confident that they did the one true thing. There are some of those cases, but they are so few and far between.”
Over the last decade, Minnesota, like many states in the country, has increasingly embraced kinship care, placing children removed from their homes with relatives and family friends even when they are not licensed foster parents, avoiding the less-desirable settings of unfamiliar households or group homes. A 2015 federally funded study found the odds of abuse or neglect occurring in the homes of kinship caregivers and non-relatives as “equally likely.”
According to statistics compiled by The Imprint, the percentage of Minnesota children in foster care who live with kin has nearly tripled since 2010, and the trend has not prompted any increase in child maltreatment. Rather, children are less likely to be uprooted during their time in foster care and more likely to emerge from the system connected with their communities and those who love them, child welfare experts say.
Granger-Kopesky emphasized that in general, it’s better for kids to be placed with relatives if they must be removed from their parents — and it’s among the first and most critical decisions social workers must make when investigating abuse and neglect cases. She stands firmly behind the practice.
“For children who experience foster care, what we know is that — in and of itself — is an adverse experience that has an impact on them across the arc of their life,” Granger-Kopesky said. “So our responsibility is to try and figure out how we minimize how hard that really is for kids. One of the ways that you do that is by having them go to family.” That way, she added, “with young kids, they might not even realize they’re ever in foster care.”
Research shows that placing children with relatives minimizes trauma, increases stability in the child’s life, improves behavioral and mental health outcomes and decreases the likelihood of reentry into foster care, among other benefits.
In Minnesota, where the 87 counties have local control of social services, the law allows relatives and friends to act as temporary caregivers without immediately becoming licensed foster parents. Informal arrangements like this are common across the country, but there is little data about them.
Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor and researcher at the University of California, Berkeley School of Social Welfare, described kinship care on a continuum: At one end is state-mandated care in which child welfare agencies take responsibility for the child’s situation and create standards of accountability that relative caregivers must follow. At the other end is independent care, in which a family decides alone that a child will live with a relative, without the involvement and support from the government. A third kind — what Duerr Berrick calls mediated care — is in between. She finds it is often problematic.
“It’s as though the government mediates this rearrangement of a child’s living conditions, but doesn’t assess the new living conditions,” Duerr Berrick said. “We don’t check them out. We don’t provide any standards. We sort of get involved, but then don’t take responsibility for it.”
While some states allow informal arrangements to continue without limits, stays with unlicensed kin are capped in Minnesota. The kin are required to file formal paperwork to become foster parents in the first 10 days, and social workers are required to immediately conduct safety and background checks on everyone in the home.
Yet a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in March alleges Hennepin and Scott counties failed to provide that protection for Layla. While her mother fought to regain custody in dependency court for Layla and her older brother, the siblings were placed in the home of her lifelong friend Jessica Betlach and her husband, Jason.
According to published reports, Betlach, a white man, had taunted the Black and Native American toddler, calling her “mongoloid” and shouting “white power” before shaking her so violently she arrived brain dead at the hospital in August 2018. The social worker for Scott County, where the children were placed, did not visit the Betlach household until months into their stay. They also never met Jason Betlach to vet his ability to care for the children, the lawsuit alleges.
Child welfare experts observing this case, however, describe it as an aberration and not an indication that kin caregivers should fall under any greater suspicion — if social workers and the system designed to protect children in out-of-home care works as it should.
In the past decade, the reliance on relatives in Minnesota has skyrocketed. In 2010, only 16% of foster youth in the state lived with relatives — well below the national average, according to data collected by The Imprint. By 2019, the number rose well above the national average to 42%. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Human Services reports that the amount of time children spend with relatives and kin has also grown in the state, to almost two-thirds of all days spent in foster care.
Had the state not gravitated more toward a greater reliance on kin, it very likely would have faced a severe capacity crisis in its foster care network. The number of children in foster care nearly doubled between 2011 and 2018, from 5,085 children up to 9,684. But there are fewer than 5,000 licensed foster homes to serve them.
The growing reliance on relatives to provide foster care in Minnesota has not corresponded with greater safety risks to children while in out-of-home care. The current rate of abuse and neglect in foster care is now well below what the federal government considers to be “standard,” according to the state’s child welfare data dashboard. Placement stability for children has also improved. As of last year, the number of changes for children in foster care settings over 1,000 days had declined by more than one move per child since 2014.
Aside from stability, there are also important cultural factors that make it more comfortable for children living with relatives — something former foster youth know all too well.
A 20-year-old former foster youth in Minnesota, who asked that his identity be protected, said he lived with his grandmother and other relatives as well as with foster families. In both scenarios, he said he felt like a guest in somebody else’s home. But he preferred living with family in informal arrangements, in part because of shared culture. As a Black child, his foster families were always white.
“Being in foster care, being with a white family is just way different,” he said. “You always question, does she have my best interest, this white lady? It’s nothing against her, but I think it’s something that’s overlooked in foster care.”
Jay Jessup, a 24-year-old in Minneapolis who also spent some of his teenage years in foster care with a white mother, agrees. He remembers sitting at the table on Thanksgiving and Christmas and feeling like the odd one out, a feeling that never really went away.
“It wasn’t a bad experience,” Jessup said, “but it was kind of awkward being a Black kid living with this white woman, being in public with this white woman. I always felt like I was looked at weird. I felt weird.”
Jessup was eventually moved to another foster home with a Black mother, he said, which he described as a better fit. Still, he added, he would have preferred to live with family if that had been an option.
Priscilla Gibson, a researcher and professor at the University of Minnesota School of Social Work, studies African American grandmothers who take care of their grandchildren, often in informal arrangements. Maternal grandmothers caring for their grandchildren is the most common arrangement for kinship care, whether formal or informal. And many of these families prefer it this way, she said.
There is deep historic significance to maintaining those bonds. “It is so culturally bound for African Americans,” Gibson said. “It started in slavery. When parents were sold to another owner, their kids weren’t always sold with them, so they were just subsumed into the community — usually by a grandmother, but also by other relatives or non-relatives who took care of those kids as their own.”
Gibson said the “extreme example” of being harmed in a kinship home placement that Layla’s case represents is not at all typical. The need that exists, she said, is for greater support for relative caregivers who have the child’s best interest at heart.
Dozens of kinship navigator programs run as one-stop centers have cropped up around the country since the model was first developed in the early 2000s, but Minnesota is currently lacking this kind of support for caregivers.
The Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association, which once offered a kinship navigator program, closed in 2013 due to a lack of funding, even though an independent report found that it increased families’ access to services, improved children’s mental health, hastened progress toward legal custody and resulted in better relationships with birth parents and a greater sense of support for caregivers.
Minnesota has received a modest federal grant each year since 2018 to use for kinship navigator services, part of an annual $20 million national program. But it has chosen to spread that funding around to various public and private organizations that serve kin, as opposed to rebuilding a centralized kinship navigator center.
Shawna Bullen-Fairbanks, an 18-year-old in northern Minnesota who was in foster care, wishes there had been a better background check on the first relative who took her in after she was removed from her mother at age 8. She said that relative abused her for four years. After spending time in group homes and in a non-relative foster home, she was eventually placed with an older sister, which turned out to be one of her best living situations, she said.
Bullen-Fairbanks advocates for asking children where they want to live — before decisions are made.
“They should ask the child how their family is, what their family structure is like, how they were with their family before and really take that into consideration, so that the child goes to the best place,” she said. “Ask them if they would like to be with relatives, or in a placement with people they don’t know in foster care or a group home.”