How kinship families are improving child welfare outcomes for children and families in Ontario

Sharon Cabrera, Kin Supervisor at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, shares how kinship families help keep kids connected

What does child welfare mean by kinship?

We’re talking about a living arrangement in which a relative, community member, or anybody else who has a connection to a child or their parent takes primary responsibility for caring for and raising the child. In most cases, it’s family with a biological connection, but kin also can include somebody who is considered to be family by the child, such as a godparent, friend, teacher, or neighbour.

How big a role are kin families playing in child welfare right now?

At the moment, kin families are looking after an average of 3,600 children in Ontario in any given month, which is about 23 percent of children and youth needing out of home placements. But despite this significant contribution, kin families don’t have the profile of foster families or adoptive families.

Why are Children’s Aid Societies increasingly looking for kin families to step in and help provide care?

There are considerable benefits to placing children with kinship families while their parents and caregivers work out issues that are affecting their parenting. From the perspective of the child, it obviously reduces the stress associated with coming into care. In many cases they already know and trust the people they will live with. Most importantly, children in this situation can maintain their racial, cultural, and religious ties. They are living with families where they are, for example, speaking the same language, getting the same kind of food they are used to, and the family traditions are very similar, if not the same. It strengthens their identities and allows them to remain connected to their community. Clinical research coming out the United States also confirms that kinship placements show better outcomes for children and families over other kinds of placements. For these reasons, the One Vision One Voice Project to Better Serve African and Caribbean Canadians has made kinship a key recommendation in its Race Equity Practice Framework.

How does the kinship family approach fit with Ontario child welfare’s commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous people?

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first recommendation calls for child welfare to reduce the number of Indigenous children in care, to keep families together where it is safe to do so, and to keep children in culturally appropriate environments. The goals of kinship align with this Call to Action and also with traditional Indigenous child rearing practices, which highly value extended families and community, the shared collective responsibility for children, and shared parenting. Many Indigenous children in Ontario are being looked after within their communities through the Kinship Service option and Formal Customary Care Agreements.

Is kinship also preferable for primary caregivers who are struggling with issues that have led to a Children’s Aid Society getting involved?

Yes, absolutely. Many parents in this situation think “If I can’t care for my child, I want my mother- grandma-to.”  It’s also a much better situation in those rare cases where children can’t return home because it can mean that they still have their parent in their lives.

Kinship families seem to be an obvious place to go when children can’t live with their families – and is a common practice in many cultures. So why is it so new to child welfare?

It’s true, it’s not that we are creating something new, it’s just that we are acknowledging something that happens in many communities. Previously, agencies worked with “provisional” foster homes, that is licensed foster homes approved to care for a child they had a specific relationship with. In 2006, the Ministry developed new mandatory Kinship Standards, which included a new kind of assessment for families where they could be primary caregivers without the child coming into care. The primary advantage of this new assessment was that it would keep kids safe in a realistic, safe, nurturing, viable placement, without them having to come into care.

So child welfare in Ontario now has two different models that kin families can explore?

Exactly. In the Kinship Care model children come into care and then get placed with kin after following the same assessment process and training that foster parents receive. The benefit of going through such a process is that families receive all the same supports that foster families do, such as per diem allowances. The downside is that there are all kinds of formal licensing regulations to follow that could feel intrusive to a family.

In the Kinship Service model, children don’t come into care but are placed with kin families either on a voluntary basis or with a supervision order. An assessment is completed using the Kinship Service Standards which assists in determining if the family is  able to protect the child and provide a nurturing, safe, and secure home.

Can you provide some examples of these myths?

One of the myths is that if a family hasn’t come forward during the investigation and offered their services, that means they are not interested in participating. In fact, often when we find family members, they didn’t know that they could come forward, or didn’t know that a child needed support.

Another myth of sorts is that the father has not been involved with the child and therefore his involvement is not important. But if you don’t pursue information about the father, you are taking away a huge opportunity to reach out to the paternal side of the family who could provide a temporary or permanent home for the child.

Finally, there is “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” myth. So, if we have a “dysfunctional family”, the myth is that there can’t be somebody in this family who is capable of looking after this child. And yet of course there are family members who can.

What kinds of challenges do kinship families face?

There is often a huge financial issue. Many kin caregivers are grandparents who live on a fixed income.  Many aunts and uncles are caring for their own children and bringing a new child into the home is costly. There is little financial support available.  However, in my experience this challenge does not stop families from caring for children. I have not seen many who say I can’t afford it, I am not taking this child or children, but it is a challenge for them to manage and more support is required.

Kin families can also face challenges around relationship management. If it’s your child or your sibling whose child you are looking after, it can be very difficult to believe the concerns that the Children’s Aid Society may have. As a kin caregiver, they need to be able to protect the child at all costs, but on the other hand they still need to be able to have a relationship with the child’s parent or caregiver and so does the child they are looking after. A huge part of our assessment is the family’s ability to do this: their ability to protect the child, how visits will be managed, and how the child’s relationship with the parent or caregiver will be supported.  Families needed to be supported in this area.

If you could wave a magic wand, what would you wish for kinship families?

First and foremost, we want proper supports for our Kinship Service families. Not just financial supports – that’s number one – but resources such as access to daycare and recreational programs. We also want to see more supports to assist kids who are struggling with trauma, but also for their kin caregivers, so they can be able to help kids dealing with that trauma. And, of course, my wish would be that all children or youth that cannot live in their current home have the opportunity to live with family or friends from their community who will support and ensure they reach their potential in a safe, nurturing and secure home environment. All children and youth deserve this.

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