Pittsburgh Magazine Profiles ASCI Founder’s Transformative Kinship Care Contributions

Article originally published in Pittsburgh Magazine.

In 1993, Dr. Sharon McDaniel saw an opportunity.

The need was dire, but McDaniel felt that her career had built up to that moment — the opportunity to tackle a desperately broken part of Allegheny County operations. McDaniel wanted to create a kinship care agency for the county’s cratered foster care system.

In those days, Allegheny County’s child welfare systems had earned a reputation as among the worst in the nation. High-profile contentious cases and child deaths kept the embattled system in the national spotlight. Children and Youth Services (CYS) had so many violations they could only get six-month provisional licenses from the state.

A 1995 headline in Pittsburgh Magazine asked: “Can CYS be fixed?”

It didn’t look promising, but McDaniel knew her vision could work. Her goal: to make sure that kids could stay with extended family or close family friends, the method called kinship care, instead of being placed with strangers or in congregate care (known informally as group homes).

When McDaniel was 2 years old, her mother died, leaving behind three children and their 24-year-old father. Struggling without the resources available to single fathers today, her dad looked to his family for help; McDaniel’s baby brother was placed with their aunt, while McDaniel and her older sister went to live with a family friend. She stayed in the foster care system, living with family and friends, until college graduation. Her experience in kinship care shaped how she viewed her future — “All I wanted to do was become a child welfare caseworker” — and everything she’s done with it since.

When McDaniel became a caseworker in 1984, “honoring one’s lived experience was not even discussed.” She knew, however, what was at stake when kinship placements weren’t prioritized — even though, on the books, they were supposed to be. In practice, long after children had been removed, “grandparents were calling me saying, ‘I didn’t know that I could be a resource for my grandchild and no one from the county told me about that.’ I recognized that something was broken at the front end of the system.”

When Allegheny County requested proposals for foster care agencies in 1993, McDaniel was ready. She opened A Second Chance in July 1994; by the end of December, they had taken on 350 children from the backlogged county system. “I knew that I could not fail the kinship triad [of parents, children and extended family],” says McDaniel, who is the organization’s CEO.

McDaniel hired employees with lived experience, setting an agency policy that at least 25% of the staff be made up of individuals who spent time in the system. “They help other caseworkers understand what the child might be going through,” she says.

In 1997, Allegheny County hired Marc Cherna to head the newly consolidated Department of Human Services (DHS) and to try to salvage CYS, later renamed Children, Youth and Families (CYF). He supported McDaniel’s work and encouraged buy-in throughout the rest of the system.

Over the next 20 years, the kinship placement rate rose to 50% and, along the way, the county repaired its national reputation. In 2017, A Second Chance and CYF paired to create a kinship navigator program, and the results were swift: In 2019, 67% of placements were kinship, compared to 32% nationally.

It’s a far cry from the ’90s. Now, McDaniel says, “Allegheny County is the model.”

Jacki Hoover, CYF’s Deputy Director, says, “You don’t often meet people like Sharon. There’s a lot of people who grow up and give back, [but] the fact that she’s dedicated her entire life … she takes it to a different level.” She adds that McDaniel “constantly challenges all of us to work harder.”

In 1993, “the need to diversify the provider network was critical,” McDaniel says. There was only one other African-American-led provider at the time. “When A Second Chance came to the table, we put in the cultural competency piece, the race equity piece.” Black children are disproportionately represented in the foster care system — about 63 percent in 2021 (down from 80 percent in 1993), while the Black child population is less than 12 percent. For McDaniel, this means bringing attention to how families are viewed prior to and after a child’s removal.

McDaniel was a trailblazer in what has become a growing push for system-wide changes to child welfare. Now, from caseworkers to peer support — and from grassroots organizations to Congress — current and former foster youth have increasing opportunities to advocate for change and to help make a traumatic experience more manageable. DHS is investing in the unique expertise of those who know the realities of the foster system from experience.

When Precious Bey-Lewis was 7, she entered kinship care with her grandmother, who later adopted her — an outcome that allowed her to stay in contact with her dad and other family members. In 2019, Bey-Lewis became a Youth Support Partner, a unit in DHS that pairs young adults who spent time in child-serving systems (foster care, juvenile probation, behavioral health, etc.) with youth currently in those systems.

It’s a full-time, county job made more accessible by only requiring a high school diploma or GED and one year of combined work experience; the position also creates a pathway to advancement within DHS. The emphasis on internal promotion, senior program manager Ashley Menefee says, ensures that people with lived experience have access to career growth and that the integrity of the program remains intact.

To read the full story about Dr. McDaniel’s influence on the child welfare system, visit Pittsburgh Magazine.

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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