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Child Welfare System Increasingly Relying on Relatives to Raise Children Exposed to Trauma

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According to a new report by Generations United, grandparents and other relatives who step in to care for children, play an important role in mitigating trauma, which children in the child welfare system experience at starkly higher rates than the general population.

Thirty percent (127,819) of children in foster care are being raised by grandparents or other relatives, a six percent increase since 2008. In the wake of the opioid epidemic, that number is even more dramatic in the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic like Ohio, which saw a 62 percent increase in the number of children placed with relatives in foster care since 2010. For each child in foster care with a relative, there are 20 children outside of the system with a relative.

More than half of the children in the child welfare system have endured four or more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), leaving them 12 times more likely to have negative health outcomes – substance use disorders, mental health problems, and engaging in aggressive or risky behaviors – than the general child population.

“Growing up with a childhood full of trauma and abuse, there were very few moments where I felt safe and very few people with whom I felt protected. Being put into my uncle’s care was the best decision that could have ever been made for me,” explained Kindra, whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy. “It wasn’t an easy road by any means, but I have no doubt in that it completely saved my life.”

Compared to those in care with non-relatives, children in foster care with relatives have more stable and safe childhoods and a greater likelihood of having a permanent home. The have better mental and behavioral health, and are more likely to report always feeling loved.

“These relatives are the loving and protective arms for babies, children and youth who’ve experience trauma,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United. “They are caring for children with multiple high-level needs and they should get the support required for the families to thrive.”

Unlike parents or foster parents who plan for months or years to care for a child, grandparents or other relative caregivers usually step into their roles unexpectedly. At a moment’s notice, they are forced to navigate complex systems to help meet the physical and cognitive health challenges of the children who come into their care.  Grandfamilies are less likely than foster families to have access to specialized training and support from professionals that have expertise in helping children, who have experienced trauma, heal.

“One thing I know to be true: you can’t love away the effects of trauma from neglect and abuse,” said Jan Wagner, grandparent caregiver, Michigan“Our children need the same amount of intensive therapy and services as a traditional foster placement and we, as their caregiver desperately need the same to help them heal.”

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Reform federal child welfare financing to provide more trauma-informed support to prevent children from entering or re-entering foster care
  • Increase availability of and access to trauma training and supports designed for grandfamilies
  • Address barriers to licensing relatives as foster parents
  • Ensure grandfamilies not licensed as foster parents can access financial assistance to meet children’s needs

Generations United will release The 2017 State of Grandfamilies in America report Sept. 13 at a reception, from 5:00pm to 7:00pm, in room G-11 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.

Generations United will honor Senator Susan Collins (Maine) and Senator Bob Casey (Pennsylvania)with its 2017 Grandfamilies Champion Awards at the event.

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