Virginia (Finally) Embraces Kinship Care - Early Learning Nation

Virginia (Finally) Embraces Kinship Care

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 3% of U.S. children are in kinship care. This could be an aunt or uncle or other relative acting as guardian when the parents are unable to. On July 1, Virginia will become the last state to formally recognize kinship care. Thanks to the efforts of Voices for Virginia’s Children (among others), the state finally has a classification for kinship care givers through which they are treated and paid like foster parents. Early Learning Nation magazine spoke to Allison Gilbreath, the organization’s senior director of policy and programs, about the new law, which she has been working on for a decade.

Allison Gilbreath and her son

Mark Swartz: What’s the immediate outcome of the new law?

Allison Gilbreath: It will allow for local departments of Social Services to come into a formal partnership with kinship families for children who would otherwise enter foster care. And now, the local agency will be able to offer them financial compensation that will be similar to what a foster parent would receive, which is around $800 in Virginia, depending on the child’s needs. And they will also be able to offer continual services that a typical foster family would receive. It also provides some opportunities for the family of origin to be on a path to reunification with the child.

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Swartz: What do you hope will happen in the long term?

Gilbreath: What I hope to see is that all localities start a true kin-first model, which is especially important for young children, because we know for the developing brain from zero to five, that attachment is extraordinarily important to their lifelong development.

Swartz: This has been a 10-year journey for you. Did you ever want to give up?

Gilbreath: Never, but the approach has been, “Let’s take bites of the apples over the course of years,” to get here.

Swartz: For example?

Gilbreath: Virginia passed the Kinship Guardianship Assistance program in 2018, which was for a small minority of children who were already placed with relatives. It allowed them to stay there and allowed the families to receive some compensation.

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Swartz: What kinds of objections did you hear to kinship care?

Gilbreath: Legislators would tell us, “Well, that’s just what families should do. We shouldn’t be compensating them for what’s just the right thing.” And we had to spend a lot of time educating them on, “Doing the right thing and taking on a child that has thousands of dollars of expenses annually aren’t the same thing.”

Swartz: How would you describe the historical roots of the how kinship care was treated in Virginia?

Gilbreath: I think that there are systems of oppression that permeate every system of which we live in. Black children are disproportionately represented in our foster care system. And as a response, the foster care system has been built around white dominant culture. The majority of our foster parents in Virginia are white. It’s not because folks of color don’t want to be become foster parents. They’re doing this informal system of kinship care, and there hasn’t been support for what is inherently cultural to Black families.

Swartz: How does the system put obstacles in the way of would-be Black foster parents?

Gilbreath: In Virginia, we go far beyond the federal requirements to become a foster parent. The requirement that is probably most talked about is the drug offenses. Basically, if you were caught with a certain amount of marijuana 10 years ago, but you’ve done nothing since then, you can’t be a foster parent in Virginia, and that disproportionately impacts families of color.

Swartz: So, a Black family in the first place might not be inclined to apply to be a foster family because of cultural issues, but then even if they were, there are these barriers preventing them.

Gilbreath: That’s very much the case.

Swartz: What about compensation for the attorneys? What we’re talking about is a legal process. A judge decides where a child goes, and if a family can’t afford their own representation, they’re going to have an attorney appointed by the state. But lawyers aren’t exactly lining up for that role, because the pay is so bad.

Gilbreath: The compensation for attorneys in child dependency cases is $120 for the entirety of the case, which is mind-boggling when I say it, but I always have to repeat. It’s the entirety of the case. So it’s almost always attorneys who are doing it as a part of their pro bono docket, which means two things happen. One, there’s poor representation. (This isn’t a matter of attorneys who don’t care, but the pay is low and the process can be traumatizing.) Two, because of the lack of adequate representation, those families are less likely to know all of their rights. They often have children removed who didn’t necessarily need to be removed in the first place.

Swartz: You’re a parent as well as an advocate, and you’re also a professor, teaching a course called Power, Privilege and Oppression in the School of Social Work at Virginia Commonwealth University. How do you weave all those strands together?

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Gilbreath: Motherhood has taught me extraordinary patience—for myself, for my children, for the sector, for the work. As a mom, you put in so much time, energy, into your children. And most days you don’t see any of the fruit of that. You might for one minute of a day, but then there are these glimmers where your child does something. For me, this year, my son started kindergarten, and he started to read. And seeing all the years that we put in from zero to five, just to try to build the building blocks for him to read, but that was five years of not just myself, but a lot of other people in his life through early intervention, through his teachers, to help us get there.

Swartz: And you get to see another kind of progress with your students.

Gilbreath: I’ve been teaching this class for four years now, and it is really one of the coolest things to see a student who’s now in the sector, and is looking back and saying, Professor Gilbreath, “What you said in your class helped shape the trajectory of my career, or the way that I show up in this work.” There are some things that I want to see changed in our system that perhaps I’m not going to see the change. I’m just going to lay the seed, and wait for the next person to fulfill the harvest. 

Swartz: Did you have a mentor or somebody who inspired you, along the way?

Gilbreath: One I would like to acknowledge Stacy Hawkins Adams. She doesn’t do policy at all, actually, but that’s the way it goes. She’s an author. She was one of the first people to tell me I was special, which I don’t think people hear enough. I still talk to her all the time, when I’m faced with a hard decision or something like that. And she’s still supportive.

Early Learning Nation columnist Mark Swartz writes for and about nonprofit organizations. Author of the children's books Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Lost Flamingo, Magpie Bridge and The Giant of the Flood as well as a few novels, he lives in Takoma Park, MD, with his wife and two children.

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