Family. Sly and the Family Stone became famous in 1979 as it belted out “We are family!” It dots that popular medium of television from the early days of “Father Knows Best,” “Leave It to Beaver,” and “The Waltons” to today’s hit of “Modern Family” or the coming redux of “Full House.” And how many movies have family as its central plot theme whether it’s meeting those Fockers or Kevin staying home alone?
Family. The famous amongst us – be they political leaders, faith thinkers, cultural icons, or pop stars – all talk about family. It’s Desmond Tutu reflecting that, “You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them.” Why it’s even Brad Pitt who observes, “A family is a risky venture, because the greater the love, the greater the loss. That’s the trade-off. But I’ll take it all.”
Family. Every kid needs a family. And if Kentucky is to be the best place in America to be young, we have to work to ensure that every kid has a family and a safe place to call home.
On any given night, nearly 1,300 out of the 7,211 Kentucky children and youth in foster care are going to bed without the care and comfort of a family. The latest KIDS COUNT® policy report, Every Kid Needs a Family: Giving Children in the Child Welfare System the Best Chance for Success, co-released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and Kentucky Youth Advocates, highlights the importance of keeping families together and placing children who cannot safely stay with their parents in family placements, such as kinship and foster families.
Kids do best when they grow up in a family, preferably their own. But it’s not just about mom and dad, grandma and grandpa. Communities can widen the array of services available to help strengthen families and support them in times of crisis. This helps children have a better chance of staying with or reuniting with their birth families and retaining bonds important to their development.
The report also reminds us that we need a vibrant continuum of care for kids who have experienced abuse or neglect – from working to keep families together through parent support services such as home visiting programs; empowering kinship families to step up; foster family placement; and temporarily serving those with intense treatment needs in residential care, if needed. We need to start at one end of the spectrum and do everything we can to keep families safely together first, before looking at other options.
Kentucky has taken several steps over the past year to ensure kids are placed in the most appropriate setting to meet their needs. Several children living in institutional placements without a clinical need to be there have been moved to homes with families – through reunification with parents, placement with relatives or in foster homes. In addition, Kentucky was granted a Title IV-E waiver, which will allow state flexibility to use federal funds on preventive measures that will help children stay safely with their own family. Previously, these funds could only be used to reimburse the costs of removing children from their homes. Despite progress made in Kentucky, work remains to ensure children are in the best possible placements. Kentucky has a lower rate than the nation of placing children in family type placements such as foster families or kinship caregivers (81 percent vs. 84 percent). In addition, 30 states and D.C. are doing a better job of using family-type placements than Kentucky.
It’s easy to talk about what should be happening. There are so many players beyond the Cabinet for Health and Family Services which are already playing vital roles in giving every kid a family. Perhaps there is no better example than Louisville’s Home of the Innocents, a private agency that serves children in crisis. While primarily a residential treatment center, the Home is an active agent in keeping families together. Currently, the Home is implementing a privately funded PASS Program to strengthen parenting skills and the results see children staying in families who might otherwise have been removed. The Home is just beginning an initiative with the Justice Cabinet to increase parent skill levels before moms are released from jail and reunited with their children. What a great example of getting ahead of the curve! The point, at hand, is that residential providers and a host of other players – be that faith communities, neighborhood centers or schools – are uniquely positioned to be a catalyst for preserving family structure.
Every situation is unique to be sure. But we know that kids do best in families. That means we need to build on the positive work in Kentucky to support birth parents, empower kinship and foster families, and articulate that continuum of care only to ensure all children have the best possible chance of experiencing a safe and loving family to help them thrive.
For kids in crisis, family is the best medicine.