"Kinship care" is the fastest-growing segment of the foster care system today. In San Francisco, one out of every six children (19,000 total) is raised by relatives. Nationwide, 7.7 percent of all children live with at least one grandparent, and three-quarters of those homes are maintained by the grandparent. Many of these children lost their parents to abuse, neglect, drugs, incarceration, or illness; they are all at a high risk of emotional disturbance, juvenile justice involvement, and failure in school.
Governmental policies encourage kinship care, both to relieve the pressure on the small number of available foster families, and for the benefits of maintaining family units whenever possible. Nevertheless, poverty and age make it difficult for many grandparents (the typical relative caregiver is a 60-year-old grandmother) to provide the care their at-risk grandchildren need. These caregivers face unique challenges to raising children, including difficulties enrolling children in public school, finding affordable legal services, authorizing medical treatment, and accessing a wide variety of governmental benefits and services.
The Edgewood Center for Children and Families, a private, nonprofit agency, started the Kinship Support Network (KSN) with assistance from the San Francisco Department of Human Services (DHS, who have established a dedicated kinship care unit as part of the program) and the San Francisco Mental Health Services. The KSN, the nation's first public-private collaboration to serve these fragile families, provides comprehensive assistance for grandparents and others who are raising their relatives' children as an alternative to foster care.
The program provides a seamless group of community-based services for the children and relatives involved in kinship care, both in and outside of the formal child welfare system. KSN provides services in the private sector to "dependent" children in relative care, from distributing information about child development practices to supporting caregivers in their quest to gain access to high-quality education and health care for their children.
Grandmothers who are relative caregivers tend to have poorer physical and mental health than other women their age, making them more likely to be exhausted or frustrated by children in their care; those who enrolled in the KSN reported significant improvements in health and well-being at the conclusion of their care giving. In San Francisco, before the KSN was available, 22 percent of relative caregivers were compelled by stress or exhaustion to return their children to the foster care system each year, at a cost of both money and emotional trauma; now only 2-6 percent do so, a dramatic increase in family stability.
Taking a cue from the private sector's focus on consumer results, the KSN solicits quarterly "Report Cards" from all their client families to judge the level of service and determine where it needs improvement; in 1998-1999, 91 percent of respondents gave the program an "A," and 95 percent gave their peer mentor an "A." Such an enthusiastic response has provoked widespread interest in the program; in 1997, statewide legislation was passed to fund the replication of the KSN model in communities across California.