Who Cares:
A National Count of Foster Homes and Families

The Support Relative Caregivers Need to Take on the Role of Foster Parent

A new data project focusing on foster care capacity has illustrated a growing reality across the nation’s child welfare system: relatives are increasingly stepping up to provide care for children removed from their parents.

The newly released data, compiled and analyzed by The Imprint, shows that the most recent surge in youth entering foster care is over. It also finds that a majority of states are now relying more heavily on relatives and unrelated kin, known as kinship care.

Furthermore, a growing number of these families are taking on the role of kinship caregivers without any financial support from child welfare agencies. The number of youth living in the homes of relatives and family friends, without a single dollar from the child welfare agency went up 32 percent between 2011 and 2017, from 81,838 to 108,426.

Nikeyah Flagg, foster and kinship navigation supervisor for SaintA.

In Wisconsin, kinship caregivers make up more than 2,000 foster homes, with 39 percent of all youth in foster care living with relatives, a figure above the national average. Of those relative caregivers, 10 percent are caring for children without financial support from a child welfare agency.

As kinship care has risen, so has the need for greater resources to help these emerging foster families navigate a complex system. SaintA has worked for several years to meet this need through our Foster and Kinship Navigation program to help relatives understand the child welfare system and access resources vital to meeting the needs of children in their care.

Increasingly, child welfare agencies are looking to kinship caregivers, both to address shortfalls in foster care licensed home capacity, but more importantly, because research has shown that kinship care minimizes trauma related to being removed from the home  and improves child well-being. By maintaining a family connection, children are more likely to achieve permanency and have shown significantly improved behavioral and health-related outcomes. It is also an important means for enabling children of different racial and ethnic backgrounds to preserve their cultural identity.

One example that comes to mind are the four African American sisters from Milwaukee that we placed with their grandmother, Ms. Scott, in September of 2018. Like most relative and kinship caregivers, Ms. Scott took her granddaughters, ages 3 to 9, into her home without hesitation. She wanted the girls to stay together, keep their sibling bond, remain in their own familiar school and be close to extended family.

Jenny Keefe, director of family services for SaintA,

Her Foster and Kinship Navigator, Shannon, helped Ms. Scott navigate the child welfare and court systems and secure basic resources for the children. With Shannon’s encouragement, Ms. Scott recently became licensed and can now attend invaluable foster parent trainings to learn about maintaining family connectedness even after abuse or neglect. More importantly, she got the financial help she needed to find a larger house and enroll the girls in more community programs in and around their neighborhood of origin.

The goal of programs like Foster and Kinship Navigation is to help kinship caregivers understand trauma-informed care and work toward maintaining a connection to the birth family. The team also plays an important role in helping caregivers move through the systems they must now navigate, including child welfare, the judicial system, education, daycare and more.

And the good news is that passage of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA), which goes into effect across many states this month, will provide a dedicated funding stream for kinship navigator programs, with jurisdictions able to receive ongoing federal reimbursement for up to 50 percent of their expenditures to provide kinship navigator programs regardless of the service recipient’s income eligibility.

It’s never an easy choice to remove a child from a home, but having access to loving relatives and close kin can make the transition easier by restoring connections that can help a child thrive even within the complexities of foster care.


Jenny Keefe is director of family services for SaintA, a human services agency based in Milwaukee that has been providing child welfare and foster care services since 1850. Nikeyah Flagg is the foster and kinship navigation supervisor for SaintA.