Supporting Foster and Kinship Care with Paid Family Leave
Families formed through foster and kinship care need what all families need, including time to flourish. However, they are often left out of conversations about work, family, and paid family leave. In recent years, an increased number of families have struggled to provide safe homes for children. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of children in foster care increased by 10% overall. In six states, the number of children in foster care increased by more than 50%. This dramatic change means that more families are being called upon to care. Fostering is a holy practice, a manifestation of the spiritual gift of hospitality. It is also intense, requiring resources, time and support. Families welcoming a child change their daily schedules, routines, and budgets. Paid family leave is one important way we can support the hospitality of foster families and kinship caregivers.
Foster and Kinship Care
When a family is unsafe, the state sometimes steps in to separate a child from their family until the family is safe again. Child welfare agencies try to place children in safe temporary families—foster families—during this period of separation. Some children are placed with families with whom they are unfamiliar. However, there are many families who care for a child in their extended family or community because they already have a relationship. These families partake in what the child welfare system terms kinship care. “Kinship care” refers to a child’s placement with a blood relative or family friend instead of an unfamiliar foster family.
Welcoming a new child into one’s home always requires time to establish a new routine and rhythm to family life. Maria Fynaardt, a Christian social worker in child welfare explains, “Taking a child into your home is a big adjustment and one that requires time and support.”
Kristi understands the important role of time in creating a family and supporting a child.
Kristi and her husband used a faith-based agency to foster-to-adopt their sons. The two brothers were three and six when they moved into Kristi’s home on a Friday evening. The following Monday, Kristi and her husband returned to work. “It was chaotic, to say the least. [W]e had been doing visits with the boys, so we already knew their personalities. . . But when they are your responsibility twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, there’s just a lot of different things to manage.”
Kristi’s supervisor was an adoptive mother herself and knew the importance of family time and bonding when a child moves in. But her place of work lacked policies authorizing Kristi to take paid time off when the boys joined her family. Kristi’s husband, a college instructor in the middle of the semester, was also unable to take time off. “If we had had even two weeks at home to get used to each other and each other’s routines before introducing work routines, that would have helped a whole lot,” reflects Kristi.
Every expanding family experiences logistical stress. Parents or guardians have to figure out the right time to wake a child up and an effective morning routine. They have appointments with case workers and parent meetings at school. They must choose the right extracurricular activities to engage their child. Routines are important to the flourishing of children. However, establishing rhythms and learning these intimate details about each other requires time and patience. Without that routine-building time, families can experience chaos and stress.
In addition to logistical coordination, the first days, weeks, and months in a new home are important for the development of trust and attachment between the family’s members. Bonding is time-intensive and important for the flourishing of the child and the family overall. Deborah Gray, a child psychotherapist specializing in attachment, adoption, trauma, and loss, recommends spending time in “nurturing activities” to develop trust, such as feeding, responding quickly to fussing, and minimizing time apart. Darlynn Childress, a parenting coach, goes as far as to recommend — when possible — adoptive parents spend one month “cocooned” at home with their child for every year a child was not in their home. This advice reflects what Kristi was told as well: “Our schedules didn’t allow it, but one suggestion is to be your child’s number one caregiver. If your child eats, you’re the one who feeds him. If your child needs a diaper change, you’re the one who changes the diaper.”
If we had had even two weeks at home to get used to each other and each other’s routines before introducing work routines, that would have helped a whole lot.
Children who have experienced family instability often need to learn the boundaries of family life. They need to learn that their parents will protect them, love them, and stay with them. In the process of bonding as a family, children test limits and boundaries. “A child [wants to] determine if you’re really there for the long haul or not,” shares Kristi. Her eldest son, six at the time, would act up sometimes. She would have to remind him, “You can’t push us away. This is forever. We’re going to love you no matter what.”
Kristi’s youngest son, three at the time, had bonded with a prior foster mom. Reflecting on his experience, Kristi observes that having time to be his primary caregiver would have eased his transition:,
[L]ooking back, I think about how traumatic it must have been for him to be torn from the only mom he ever knew (his previous foster mom)... He had a new house, new school, new mummy caring [for him] at night, and new people caring for [him] during the day... He had to be so confused by all of that... If we had just been able to slow things down... I think it would have helped him.
Called Upon for Kinship Care
Over one third of adopted children with child welfare involvement were adopted by relatives (35%) and over one third of children in foster care were living with a relative (32%). The law directs child welfare agencies to prioritize kinship placements, as being placed with someone known is often an easier transition for a child than to be placed with a stranger.
Kinship caregivers face similar challenges to family life that foster and adoptive parents experience upon welcoming a child. But, the circumstances mean kinship caregivers may—understandably—be less prepared for the disruption to their family rhythms.
Take the example of Alex, shared by Fynaardt:
Alex is a single mom of two children. She works for the local hotel as a maid and is trying to earn a degree in hospitality management. In the middle of the night she gets a call from child welfare. She’s the only local relative to her cousin, whose kids are being removed from her care until she successfully completes substance use treatment. Alex - who knows the kids, knows it’s important they stay together and believes family should step up in these situations - agrees to take in her cousin’s three children. Alex was already stretched thin. Overnight, her situation escalated to impossible.
All families need time to figure out life together. But some transitions need more intense time than others. For adoptive, foster, and kinship families to welcome a new child and build family rhythms together, a period of intense time for bonding and adjustment is necessary. Unfortunately, many families do not have access to the family time necessary for this critical transition.
Supporting Family Transitions
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) recognizes the importance of protecting family time for foster parents. FMLA guarantees job protection for eligible workers who take time off for family or medical leave. Foster care is among the eligible circumstances for leave protected by the FMLA. Specifically, FMLA guarantees up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave during the 12-months period after a child’s placement in the home. The leave may be accessed prior to placement if there are circumstances requiring foster parent involvement for the placement to proceed, such as counseling sessions or court appearances. Foster parents are also permitted to utilize FMLA leave to care for a foster child with a serious health condition. With employer approval, FMLA leave may be used intermittently as well.
FMLA provides an important piece of support for families, but it does not guarantee that workers will receive a paycheck during a family leave. Some states are building on FMLA to help families afford to take time off for family care. As of August 2019, eight states and the District of Columbia have enacted paid family leave laws that include time for bonding for foster families welcoming a child. This type of benefit could have filled the gap for Kristi, whose employer had not yet established a paid family leave benefit. A paid family leave policy could have also supported Alex in taking time from work to organize her life around the care of five, rather than two, children. Protecting time away from work for family care is a critical component of family flourishing, and FMLA offers some protections for family time. State paid leave programs go further to help more families afford time away from work for family.
There is a national need for both kinship caregivers and foster parents. Foster parents receive only a modest financial stipend during their period of caregiving. Kinship caregivers do not. Fynaardt reflects, “When someone voluntarily steps up to be a kinship caregiver, they are opening their heart and home to children under the care of the state but are [rarely] receiving support from the state.” Providing paid family leave to foster and kinship caregivers could help ease financial strain on these families and communicate respect for the time required for a healthy transition. FMLA alone is not enough. Policy innovations and models being developed at the state-level can inform policies across the country that better support families through critical transitions, such as the transitions experienced by Kristi and Alex.
Paid Family Leave for Foster and Kinship Caregivers
As the conversation about paid family leave continues in workplaces, states, and at a national level, we must recognize the importance of time for foster and kinship families as well as families expanding by birth and adoption. All growing families experience growing pains. It takes time to establish family rhythms and routines, but this process is important for the flourishing of the family. Additionally, bonding is a time-intensive experience integral the health and well-being of children. Every family needs time dedicated to bond and establish routines, but current workplace and public policy does not protect that time for every family. Paid family leave can help ensure that families have the time they need to flourish. By supporting paid family leave, we offer hospitality to and help protect the most vulnerable children in our communities.
Chelsea Maxwell is the Program Associate for Families Valued, a Center for Public Justice initiative promoting policies that support and honor God's call to both work and family life.