MARION — In recent years, Marion County Children Services has been working to develop and improve its kinship placement service as an alternative to foster care.
According to agency officials, the use of kinship providers is helping to decrease the number of children placed in foster care locally.
The Office for Children and Families, a division of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, defines kinship care as “a temporary or permanent arrangement in which a relative or any non-relative adult who has a long-standing relationship or bond with the child and/or family, has taken over the full-time, substitute care of a child whose parents are unable or unwilling to do so.”
“It could be a teacher or a coach, an uncle or a cousin,” said Elizabeth Moore, foster care and community engagement coordinator for Marion County Children Services. “In our experience here, more often than not, it’s a family member who takes on that role, but the family might have a friend or someone from the community that they know, they trust, that knows their kids, that loves their kids, that wants to help them.
“Taking kids out of their home in general is traumatic, but if you can get kids with people they know and trust and have a connection or bond to, then that is less traumatic, and can still ensure that they’re safe.”
Moore stressed that Children Services monitors children in kinship care situations just like it does children in foster care.
Elizabeth Arthur, 30 Days to Family Specialist for Marion County Children Services, said use of kinship care has “drastically decreased” the number of children in foster care. She said there are currently 64 children in foster care, down from 95 in May.
Arthur said seven of the children currently in foster care are in the final stages of being adopted. Five children are waiting to be transferred from foster care to kinship care because providers have been identified and approved.
Moore noted that while the kinship care numbers are increasing, there is still a need to place children in foster care in some situations.
“There is a still a need for foster parents, especially local foster parents,” she said. “What’s great about kinship is that we can keep these kids in their community and they can have the support from the same school and their friends. They don’t have the disconnect in those relationships.”
Arthur explained that 30 Days to Family is a pilot program being in conducted in 17 counties across Ohio. If no one is referred to the agency to be a kinship provider for a child, Arthur can use resources and databases to create family trees for each child to find potential providers.
In her position, Arthur conducts home studies and background checks of candidates for kinship providers. The grant-funded position has proven to be a valuable asset for the agency.
“Doing the background checks and home studies of the kinship providers for these kids alleviated some of the work from our caseworkers who didn’t have as much time,” Arthur said. “We’ve seen a huge shift in our focus on kinship and getting kids with families and kin as opposed to foster care.”
Kinship Support Caseworker Toni Carbetta said the agency’s emphasis on kinship care and participation in the 30 Days to Family program has streamlined the process of finding potential providers to care for children.
“Because the agency’s view on kinship has changed and how much more important it is that children have that connection, it’s easier,” Carbetta said. “Even three years ago when I started as a caseworker, I felt like it wasn’t easy to find kinship, but now we can pull up (the child’s) family tree and find someone.”
One of the key components to kinship care is providing a safe space and opportunities for parents and children to interact.
“We have a visitation center here at the agency where parents and kids can meet and play and spend time together,” Carbetta said. “But in a lot of cases our kinship providers will have them over to their house or take them to a park because (the kinship providers) already have that relationship with the family. Parents being able to have that bond with their kids outside of our visitation center, no matter how comfortable (the visitation center) is, it’s important.
“Our kinship providers provide such an important service for our parents. We really rely on them to be cheerleaders for our parents.”
Arthur noted that kinship providers can also offer more frequent contact between parents and children than is available through the visitation center.
Moore said kinship providers can access benefits through Job and Family Services to help pay for items children need.
She said Marion County Children Services is also partnering with an organization called Be the Village Marion, whose goal is, according to its Facebook page, “to connect with and support foster families, but also to engage the children’s birth families so that together we can break the cycle of abuse and neglect. We seek to provide a community where our children and families can thrive.”
Be the Village Marion is providing “kinship bags” for providers that contain food.
“We want to make sure that these kinship providers are feeling connected to their community so that they can maintain those kids in the home and we have less changes in placement for them,” Moore said. “Seeing our community rally around kids and families in general is really great.”