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Kinship eases foster child placement across Pennsylvania

| Saturday, April 9, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Sean Stipp | Tribune-Review
Shara B. Saveikis, MSW, Westmoreland County Children's Bureau, executive director, stands for a portrait on April 8, 2016.

When a family friend asked Rhianna Diana and her husband, Robert, to become foster parents of a 3-year-old boy whom the friend was temporarily fostering, the Bridgeville couple did not hesitate.

“I got the phone call Jan. 21 two years ago, and he was in our home Feb. 8,” said Rhianna Diana, 38.

Because the Dianas knew the Westmoreland County foster mother caring for the boy and had spent time with the child, they became the ideal candidates to be his foster parents through a program called “kinship care,” which encourages child protective agencies to place children with family or friends before considering other options.

It's a concept being embraced throughout Pennsylvania, where 24 percent more at-risk children were placed in the homes of friends and relatives instead of strangers between 2012 and 2014, according to data from the Office of Children and Families in the Courts.

In Westmoreland County, kinship care placements have taken off, rising by more than 305 percent between 2008 and 2015, according to Shara B. Saveikis, administrator of the county's Children's Bureau.

“We believe strongly in strengthening families and enhancing kinship involvement and placement, which is always in the best interest of the child,” Saveikis said. “It reduces the trauma of being separated from their parents, by being placed with someone they know, when they cannot safely remain in their own homes.”

For the Dianas, kinship care led them to adopt the boy, now 5, who came to them as a foster child.

“Kids, when they are taken away from their home, they need a family connection,” Rihanna Diana said. “We still see our family friend three or four times a year, so our son still has that bond he made with them and their children.”

Avoiding added trauma

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Max Baer said the increase in kinship placements is significant because children often enter court-ordered care under traumatic circumstances.

“There's no question that kids are better served by staying with people they know,” he said.

When placements are necessary in Allegheny County, relatives are considered first, said Karen L. Blumen, deputy director of the county's Department of Human Services.

“We have had a clear preference for placing a child with kin, when a placement is necessary, for almost two decades,” Blumen said. “The majority of our placements are kin.”

Children are referred to the Westmoreland Children's Bureau for reasons ranging from physical, sexual and emotional abuse to parental drug use, poor home conditions, truancy and other factors, according to Adam Garrity, program specialist with the agency.

In Westmoreland and Allegheny counties, the goal is to resolve the unsafe conditions without removing the children from the home.

But there are times when officials are left with no choice but to place a child in foster care, Garrity said.

By the time the courts are involved, caseworkers have worked with the parent or child to identify potential kinship fosters, he said.

“We are really passionate about engaging the family from the beginning, and not waiting until the children come into custody,” Garrity said. “We want to give the parent and children a voice, to be part of the process, not the process.”

Diana said she talked with the temporary foster mother for a year before entering into the kinship care program.

“She's (the original foster mother) adopted before, and was not in a position to adopt more children, with her house already full,” Diana said. “She was only considered a temporary foster, so she approached us a year prior and asked us, if he were not able to be reunited, would we care for him?”

Kinship foster parents must undergo the same certifications and training as other foster parents, according to Mike Caggeso, a social worker who handles all of Westmoreland's kinship placements. The process must be completed within 60 days, he said, which can be overwhelming and confusing for some.

“If they are grandparents, they wonder, ‘Why do I have to do all this? Why do I have to have all these clearances and these home inspections?' ” Caggeso said. “That's one of the bigger challenges, and no one sees that coming.”

But it's a necessary step to ensure that children who have endured hardship in their lives are spared additional difficulties.

Despite concerns that family members or close acquaintances may be experiencing some of the same difficulties that led to the child's removal from a home, Caggeso said, those worries are generally unfounded.

For instance, if a child's father has drug problems, it doesn't necessarily follow that an aunt or uncle will have drug problems.

“There's a stigma, or a very untrue stereotype, that the apple doesn't fall very far from the tree, and so kinship care was ruled out,” Caggeso said. “The reality is that most family trees are fine. All trees have bad apples, so it's just a matter of finding the good apples on the tree and working with them.”

To encourage kinship care, the state has developed an educational video that explains aspects of it to potential caregivers. To view the video, visit: http://bit.ly/1YjnxIs.

Liz Zemba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-601-2166 or lzemba@tribweb.com.

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