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Facing critical foster need, NY social services transitions to keeping kids with kin

Published: Nov. 11, 2021 at 3:46 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 12, 2021 at 5:12 AM EST
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PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (WCAX) - There’s an urgent need for foster and kinship families in New York’s North Country, a problem that experts say has been made worse by the pandemic. A recent federal law that focuses on keeping kids with people they know -- who might not be family -- was fully implemented in New York earlier this fall and officials say it has changed the way they look at foster care.

“I became a kinship caregiver 24 years ago,” said Vickie Martineau. I got my oldest granddaughter and then six years later I got two more of my granddaughters.”

Susan Geddes, another kinship caregiver says it was a call she’ll never forget. “About three years ago I got a phone call and my granddaughter ended up coming to live with us,” she said. “She ended up with us for almost three years.

But being a kinship caregiver can also be hard, especially when caring for your grandchild requires sacrificing your relationship with your own child. “I actually lost that connection with my daughter to take care of the three daughters that she had,” Martineau said.

There are currently more than 16,000 children in New York state in foster or kinship care. For our region that breaks down to 79 in Clinton County, 137 in Franklin County, and 58 in Essex County. In Clinton County, about 40% of the children are under five. It’s a familiar story in New York’s North Country -- family members or close-knit friends or neighbors stepping up to take in kids in crisis.

“Research shows that kinship care actually continues to provide the child with connection to their family of origin, so it helps them feel less separate from the family, less disrupted from their family and having that connection has shown that they have better outcomes,” said Juliette Lynch with the Childcare Coordinating Council of the North Country.

There are many reasons a child may need to be placed with relatives including substance abuse, mental health troubles, military deployment, and death. The length of each placement varies case by case.

This past September, New York state implemented the Family First Prevention Services Act, a federal program that places children with relatives before looking at foster care. “We redesigned our entire services unit,” said Christine Peters with the Department of Social Services, which is responsible for finding placements for children.

“We got more creative on how to find people,” said Dana LePage, the supervisor of the state’s local Family First Triage Unit.

“We are not looking at traditional relatives, the traditional way we’ve always done it -- mom, dad, aunts, uncles, cousins, family-like, that we are really looking at. Who are their support system? Who are their resources? Who are they comfortable with -- both parents and the children -- because if you can make that jump for a necessary placement out of home for safety.”

Before children are removed from a home, LePage says they identify upwards of 30 adults in case kinship care is needed. That helps caseworkers, who are ready to take a child at a moment’s notice. “I think our numbers speak to the increase -- from 12% to 43% of our placements being kinship -- I think it really speaks of our tenacity and really going after and finding those relatives,” she said.

After a child is placed, they may be referred to the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country, which connects caregivers to services. “We have always tried to keep the connection and support for kinship caregivers because we recognize this population needs support,” Lynch said. They have been working with kinship caregivers over the last 10 years and will help families get the funds that are available to them. “Oftentimes kinship caregivers don’t realize that and they will just absorb the costs.”

Despite all the help, these grandmothers say returning to parenting is very hard. “They have to live through it, the parents have to live through it and you have to live through it and it’s not easy, nothing is easy about it,” Martineau said.

“When you are younger and you take on this situation it’s a little bit different. Everything has changed by the time you are 60, 65, and 70 years old and you are suddenly responsible for a child. It’s a big change,” Geddes said.

Reunification remains the main goal of any placement. For Geddes, her granddaughter went back to her mother in May.

Martineau still has one of her granddaughters. The other two are now living with their father. Both say they could not help the children without community support.

“Not everyone knows everything, so we feed off of each other, learn from each other and support each other,” Martineau said.

“I’ve learned so much over the last three years, I don’t even know where it all came from. You think you know everything as you get older but that’s when you learn you know nothing,” added Geddes.

And that help goes beyond money. There are respite services that give caregivers a temporary break and playgroups that allow children to connect with others in similar situations. Everyone we spoke to stresses that there is help out there and no one is in it alone.

Click here to find out more about foster and kinship care in New York.

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