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Hidden Foster Care: The Problem with Voluntary Kinship

Article written by ASCI’s founder and CEO, Dr. Sharon McDaniel, for Child Protection & Well-Being Trends


In 1993, I saw an opportunity to eliminate “hidden foster care” in western Pennsylvania. My own lived experiences in the child welfare system confirm what most of us already know: No child asks to go to a stranger’s home in the absence of their family. They want to go with kin. It’s a legal right and, more importantly, a moral right that must not be undone at the hands of kinship diversion.  

“Hidden foster care” or shadow foster care” can be made more palatable by calling it “kinship diversion” or “voluntary kinship,” but we must also be honest and name it for what it is: racism and classism. 

We must address how power and privilege manifest in child welfare practice and how “custody-and-visitation agreements” are a form of oppression. There exists an institutionalized pattern of purposely leveraging fundamental civic and human rights to birth parents so we can balance the books on the backs of children of color, the poor and the marginalized. To discuss child welfare without any reference to race and poverty is ignorant and oblivious to reality in the era of our post-George Floyd world. 

Parents have a fundamental right to make decisions as to the companionship, care, custody and management of their children—a protected liberty interest under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Troxel v. Granville, 530 U.S. 57, 65–66, 120 S.Ct. 2054, 2060 (2000).

Additionally, separation does not have to be carried out with force for due process to be implicated; instead, duress or coercion is sufficient, such as when a social-services worker threatens to place a child in foster care if the child is not “voluntarily” placed outside the home with family or friends. Croft v. Westmoreland County Children & Youth Servs., 103 F.3d 1123, 1125 (3d. Cir. 1997)Dupuy v. Samuels, 462 F.Supp.2d 859 (N.D. Ill. 2005), aff’d, 465 F.3d 757 (7th Cir. 2006).

But, as suffered by families of color and the poor in areas of supposed law and order, due process is interpreted from a lens of privilege and power. The system makes decisions for families that would not occur in communities where privilege and power are originated. 

Yet, change can occur when we consider the racist and classist practices leading to the illegal removal of children from their parents, when we work under the ethic of due diligence.   As a kinship agency in the child welfare sector for almost 30-years, A Second Chance, Inc. (ASCI) understands these fundamental rights and work tirelessly with our county child welfare department to ensure parental voice, child safety, and caregiver support.

In the early 1990s, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania’s child welfare system was considered among the worst in the country. We can certainly acknowledge the high-profile cases that plagued the county’s Office of Children, Youth and Families (CYF) at the time, but it was predominantly kinship diversion that created a system of family oppression in Pittsburgh. At the height of the crack epidemic, Black and Brown child-of-record numbers were diverted to relatives, without support other being advised to visit CYF to sign up for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), a program later replaced with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Almost 30 years later, the strategic partnership between ASCI and CYF demonstrates in outcomes that providing kin with financial and case supports through foster care licensing saves the county and state money, but more importantly, provides children with a way home to their parents. 

This article is a cautionary tale to be considered as we see the implementation of the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) throughout the country, where “informal kinship care” and “safety plans” may meet the requirements for federal funds to be utilized for programs and treatment to prevent foster care placements. However, FFPSA also has the power to spread “hidden foster care” and further oppress families of color and the poor. FFPSA addresses the prevention of foster care, but not the child abuse and neglect that leads to system involvement. Where does FFPSA address the correlation between poverty and maltreatment, as well as the implicit and explicit biases that bring children to the attention of child welfare in the first place?  

If “custody-and-visitation agreements” do not address reunification with parents or advancing a safety placement to a formal kinship care placement, then we are returning to the 1990s in Pittsburgh, except this time we advise the family on TANF instead of AFDC, where once again, power and privilege undergird the value we place on children of color and the poor. 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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