Naomi Schaefer Riley’s Attack on Kinship Care Falls Flat

December 22, 2020 by Robert Franklin, JD, Member, National Board of Directors


Naomi Schaefer Riley’s assault on kinship care for kids in danger with their parents eventually gets to, you know, kinship care, although it takes its time (Quillette, 12/12/20).  As I said last time, despite a federal lawsuit and consent decree mandating that the State of New Jersey reduce the number of kids taken into foster care, Riley somehow imagines that all those kids who were taken by the state actually needed to be in foster care.  Never mind that the plaintiffs, the state itself and the judge found that many of them shouldn’t have been.

With that dubious background, Riley tells readers that kinship care isn’t a “panacea,” i.e. a cure-all for what ails the foster care system.  I know of no one who’s ever called it that and Riley cites no source.  What kinship care is, however, is a usually-better alternative to taking a child from parents and placing him/her in a strange home with strangers.  The reasons for that I’ve detailed many times and they’re little but common sense.  Even Riley recognizes that being taken into foster care is traumatic for children and that kinship care is usually far less so.

Strangely, to bolster her case against kinship care, Riley cites the case of J.D. Vance as detailed in his book, Hillbilly Elegy and the movie of the same title.  Her reliance on Vance is odd because his is a clear case in which kinship care worked well.  His mother was a violent drug addict who physically abused him and plainly placed him in serious danger.  So he went to live with his grandmother, a move that Riley admits turned out well.

“Luckily,” he recalls, “I had enough faith in my grandma. I knew that she wouldn’t let anything too bad happen to me.” Vance’s story of remaining in the care of his extended family and not being put into the system turned out well—he eventually goes into the Marines, college, and Yale Law School—but it is easy to imagine how the situation might have gone south.

Well, we can imagine anything.  We can even imagine Riley’s coming up with a case that supports her antipathy for kinship care.  In fact, we’ll have to do just that because, in the event, Riley provides none of her own.

Nor does she listen to Vance about his reasons for lying to the judge about his mother’s violence toward him.

“The judge asked whether she had done anything to threaten me. And I lied. I told him no because I knew that if I kept on pushing the case, one, it would cause a lot of problems for the family. And two, it might land me in a foster home.” 

See?  It’s there in black and white.  An adolescent boy lies under oath to a judge in order to remain with his violent mother because doing otherwise “might land me in a foster home.”  What about that does Riley not understand.  The kid had hell with his mother, but, to him, that was still better than foster care.

Riley’s piece is entitled “The Problem with Kinship Care.”  So what is the problem with kinship care?  Well, first she claims that CPS caseworkers may simply find it easier to shove kids off on Grandma than do all the paperwork required to place them in foster care.  She cites no authority for the proposition which, in any case, flies in the face of the known facts – that caseworkers all too often take kids into care who don’t need it.  Remember that federal lawsuit?  That’s what it was all about, so Riley’s claim that placing a child in foster care is just to difficult for caseworkers falls flat.

Then she tries a different tack.

Margaret Nichols Honeycutt, a pediatrician who works in Richlands, Va., told me that many children she sees born drug-exposed “may have the grandparent listed on the guardian certificate but they are going to the same home.” She notes, “Because drugs here are a multigenerational problem, if the kids go home with the grandparents, the pathology is still right in their face.”

I suppose that could be a problem, although again, Riley’s citation of a single pediatrician’s entirely unscientific take on her own day-to-day practice hardly seals the deal.  More importantly, it doesn’t explain why children do better on average in kinship care than they do in foster care.  If exposure to the same pathologies were truly a major problem, we’d have to think they wouldn’t.  But they do.  Riley neither acknowledges nor explains the rather obvious shortcoming of her and Honeycutt’s claim.

So she moves on to this:

[T]he fact that a parent with addiction issues who has lost custody of her children has continued access to them may actually remove one of the major incentives to get clean.

In other words, when little Andy or Jenny moves to Grandma’s house, Mom still comes to see them any time she wants and so has little reason to get off whatever addictive substance she’s on.  Again, that’s certainly a possibility, I suppose.  But when caseworkers channel a child into kinship care, it’s not as if they ignore the parent who made the move necessary.  Typically, the addicted parent tries to get the state to hand the child back, a process that usually means a drug or alcohol treatment program and proof the parent is no longer using.  If and only if the parent satisfies CPS that he/she’s no longer a danger to the child will caseworkers agree to return the child.  That’s true in kinship care and foster care, so it’s hard to see the problem.

And, as before, Riley attempts to bolster her criticism with authority that does no such thing.  She cites a study that compares, not kinship care with foster care, but foster care with abusive parental care.  The study finds foster care to be preferable, but says nothing about kinship care.

In short, Riley’s efforts to besmirch kinship care fail.  But what’s most remarkable about her article is what it never says.  She wants us to be critical of kinship care, but never lets on about what the alternatives are.  We know, but she refuses to address the elephant in the room – foster care.  There are reasons why movements to sharply restrict the foster care system abound.  Those include the fact that foster care is often far worse for kids than even abusive or neglectful parental care.  Foster kids are more likely than other kids to be physically or sexually abused in care, they’re more likely to be drug- or alcohol-addicted, they do worse in school, are more likely to drop out before graduation, girls are more likely to become pregnant and, in what must be called the coup de grâce, often return to the very family from whom they were taken when they “age out of the system” at age 18.

Unless Riley has some miraculous plan about which she says nothing, foster care is the alternative to kinship care.  There aren’t any others and the picture of foster care isn’t pretty.  Is kinship care a “panacea?”  Of course not, but neither is anything else.  Can it be improved.  It can be.  But let’s focus on doing that and not on trashing the very idea of a type of care that’s often a child’s last, best hope for a decent childhood.

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