Jun 5


Erie County making headway on foster care

While falling short of goals, Erie County has nevertheless substantially increased the placement of foster children with relatives.

Illustration by Christine Ongjoco.

This story is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.

Where Kin Come First: The Imprint’s first-ever analysis of how often New York counties place foster children with relatives found huge gaps across county lines. This story reveals how counties that prioritize kin are keeping children within family networks. Part two of a two-part series. Read part one here.  

In 2018, when her young nephew was found wandering outside alone, Krystal Henderson got a call from the Chemung County social services agency. Would she and her husband be willing to take him in?

Henderson knew her brother struggled with addiction, and she was willing to step up. But she couldn’t do it alone; the local government would have to assist. 

In her case, it did. Henderson, 37, received everything from quick access to monthly financial payments to respite care and guidance on how to manage difficult behaviors.

“I had that sense of ‘OK, these guys are here to support me,’” said Henderson, a Waverly resident.

When children are removed from their parents in New York following reports of abuse or neglect, some counties go to far greater lengths than others to make sure they remain close to family. Their child welfare agencies have dedicated teams of social workers tapping into kinship networks early on in a CPS case — not months after kids have been living in strangers’ homes. And they take advantage of state and federal rules allowing placement with relatives, even when their homes may not meet standard licensing requirements. That means children can move in even when family members don’t have a free extra bedroom or a pristine criminal record. 

Krystal and Robert Henderson, upper right, in a family photo. 

All applicants seeking work with Chemung County Children and Family Services are informed of the agency’s goal for children who can’t live safely with their parents. 

“We communicate to potential team members when they apply for a job here that kin come first,” said Chemung County Director of Children and Family Services Mindy Banfield. “We’ll do whatever it takes. Our whole team, from entry level on up, share this philosophy and vision around the importance of kin.” 

An Imprint analysis detailed in part one of this series found a vast divergence in how likely it is that foster children will be placed with kin, depending on which New York county they lived in. In some counties, as many as 80% of kids taken from their parents are moved to the homes of relatives or close family friends. In others, that number is 1%. The contrasts exist even in neighboring counties and those with similar demographics, and in communities both urban and rural.

This story, based on interviews with 22 child welfare professionals including local leaders in nine counties, examines those counties that have had more success, detailing the culture, staff directives and policies.

Once child welfare agencies begin to rely more regularly on kinship care, they become more comfortable advising the courts to approve relative placements, said Jean Galle, vice president of community-based services at the Rochester-based Hillside Family of Agencies. 

“With our other counties, once we’ve started to do some kinship foster care and it’s been successful, it builds from there,” Galle said. “The county starts trusting the process.”

Counties where kin come first 

Congress passed the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act to provide states with funding to prevent foster care, and to keep kids away from institutions and out-of-home placements with strangers whenever possible.

New York State embraced the goals, and set a target of placing half of all foster children with kin by September 30, 2021. The state remains short of that target — driven in part by low-performing counties that drag the statewide average down to 39%. The Imprint found 19 of 62 counties, including Monroe and Livingston Counties, performing far below both the state average and New York’s 50% goal. 

But through targeted reforms, some counties perform far better than others, The Imprint’s examination shows.

Compared with other states, New York is not an outlier. Only 10 states placed more than 40% of foster children with kin in 2021, according to federal data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The relative placement rate in the highest-performing state, West Virginia, was 54%. 

For children, the stakes are enormous. Study after study has shown that kids placed with kin perform better in school, have fewer behavioral challenges and are less likely to re-enter the foster care system once they reunite with parents. They are also more likely to maintain connections with siblings and have better mental health outcomes than children placed outside of their families. 

“The benefits to placing children with kin have been researched and well documented,” noted a 2020 memo from the state’s Office of Children and Family Services to New York counties. “When appropriate, safe and in the child’s best interests, placements with kin are preferred.” 

That’s why a group of New York state lawmakers wants more money spent on “family-first” policies.  

The Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus executive board. Provided photo.

In a 2024 “people’s budget” released in December, the state’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian legislative caucuses called on other state leaders to allocate $7.5 million toward recruiting, retaining, and strengthening foster and kinship families, among other steps to prioritize family in child welfare systems. The governor’s 2025 budget passed in April included almost double that amount, $13.7 million, for family-first spending. 

How kin-first support works 

Henderson’s family are among those who’ve benefited from kin-first policies. 

In 2018, when her then 5-year-old nephew was found alone on the side of a busy road in the city of Elmira, Chemung County child protective service workers quickly launched a search for relatives. 

They found Henderson, then a nursing assistant at a local hospital, and her husband Robert, who worked there as a sterile processing technician. The couple knew her brother and his partner had struggled with substance use for years, and they were ready to assist. 

So the county placed the child in their care while the Hendersons mulled their options over the next few weeks. 

They chose the county’s offer to assist them in getting certified as foster providers on an emergency basis, while they pursued formal licensing. That made them eligible for county-funded services, including support groups, financial and medical help and assistance from agency caseworkers. Equally important, Henderson said, was the help the county would give her brother and his partner — the child’s parents — to treat their addictions, a necessary requirement to reunify with their son.

While they were getting certified, her brother and partner had another child, who the Hendersons also took in. 

Stepping in as a temporary caregiver through the foster care system was by no means easy. It took three months to become fully certified foster parents. But county caseworkers walked the Hendersons through the process, giving them a few specific and manageable tasks at a time so they could fully focus on the children in their care. 

The Hendersons were nervous about the process, worried about having caseworkers in their home each month, and living up to the expectations of being quality foster parents. Caseworkers reassured them that should obstacles come up, they’d work through them and assist however they could.

Once licensing was complete, inevitably, issues arose. In his first few years, their nephew’s trauma played out in some difficult-to-manage behaviors. When he was rough with pets and destroyed a mattress, social workers gave advice, guiding the couple on how best to support him. 

They also knew the Hendersons needed support. County workers helped set up respite care, arranging brief periods of time the children could stay with other caregivers to give the couple needed a break. 

“Sometimes it was just the caseworkers talking things through with me on the phone, and I'd get past it,” Henderson said.

Chemung County has almost tripled its kin placement rate in recent years, from 22% to 62%, making it the third-highest performing county in the state on that measure. 

Mindy Banfield.

Director Banfield said workers avoid placing kids with strangers for even a few days, by certifying relatives as foster care providers on an emergency basis. 

That allows for hasty move-ins after CPS investigations require that children be removed from home, with an additional 90 days to complete the full licensing process. And when willing relatives live outside county lines, Chemung County staff travel to meet them in person to help line up assistance.

Henderson said she was so impressed with the quality of the agency’s help that she shifted her college major from accounting to sociology. She had no prior direct experience with Chemung County child welfare workers, but was familiar with widespread negative impressions of CPS agencies. 

“So to have caseworkers on the phone — this sweet voice, always well-spoken, very kind, giving me support — it just kind of changed my whole degree choice,” Henderson said. 

She’s since gone on to work for Chemung County as a caseworker. Her job since 2022 includes locating relatives to take care of children removed from home.

The cost of working with kin

The Imprint’s analysis identified other ways that counties that place children with kin at higher rates than others get the job done.

In the state’s Appalachian Plateau region, Cortland County places 53% of foster children with kin. Its Department of Social Services contracted with a community-based agency to find relatives and help them qualify as foster care providers.

Deputy Commissioner Allison Veintimilla said the commitment to kin is what’s best for children, but comes at a cost to taxpayers. Certifying relatives hits the county budget harder because they’re paid more than they would be if they took custody informally — a path other counties and states often rely on. 

Working with kin also takes more staff time than placing children with previously licensed foster parents, Veintimilla said, because relatives aren’t as familiar with how the child welfare system works.

“It might be putting more supportive services into the home, such as extra casework contact from the staff,” she noted, “versus a foster home that’s kind of done this for years, knows the system, knows what’s expected.” 

A change in culture in Erie 

Erie County, home to Buffalo, has shown a dramatic shift in kin placement rates in recent years. That county’s numbers shot up from just 28% in 2019 to 41% in 2023, state data show. Erie County places foster children with relatives at more than double the rate of its neighbor to the east, Monroe County — where the number of children who enter foster care and demographics and poverty rate are nearly identical to Erie County’s. 

Two people employed at agencies that work closely with Erie’s Department of Social Services said the agency went through a culture change after the 2018 federal law. Like Chemung County, Erie County approves relatives as foster parents on an emergency basis to avoid temporary placements with strangers. That’s a significant change from how things were done previously, said Galle, whose community-based agency serves central and western New York. 

The county also certifies relatives who previously might have been ruled out due to things like running a home business or having too few bedrooms, she said. Exceptions can be made under a 2020 state directive, as long as it’s in the children’s best interests and doesn’t put their safety at risk.   

Late last year, the Biden administration finalized new rules making it easier for states to license kin while remaining eligible to receive federal funds to help pay for such placements. The first U.S. state and tribe have recently been approved. Mark Testa, a former University of North Carolina professor and widely cited expert on the topic, called the regulation “the most important advance the federal government has made in kinship care policy in the last 40 years.” 

To further spread the word, a group of national kinship care advocates have circulated model standards for licensing kinship homes, in line with these new federal rules. 

They call for specific, material support if needed: “If a kin caregiver is taking placement of an infant and does not have a car seat, the agency should assist the caregiver in obtaining, or directly provide, a car seat; if a kin caregiver is taking placement of a toddler, the agency should assist with obtaining, or directly provide, safety gates. Kin should not be disqualified for not having appropriate safety equipment in their home prior to placement.”

Erie County’s specialized unit, the Family Unification and Support Team, helps caseworkers identify and enlist support and resources for kinship caregivers through “meaningful conversations” about what to expect from foster care, as well as helping with applications for financial support. 

Emily Mehltretter.

An intensive search process is used to locate family members, and relatives are included in decisions about children in the agency’s care. The approach earned the team a national award from the federal Children’s Bureau last November. 

Catholic Charities of Buffalo is assisting such efforts, under contract with Erie County.

Emily Mehltretter’s title speaks to the shift: Senior Director of Family Enrichment. Her team helps relatives fill out the extensive paperwork required for foster care licenses, and provides counseling and other at-home assistance once kids are placed in their care. 

Last year, Erie County sent more family members than ever to Mehltretter’s nonprofit agency, which she attributes to the county’s internal culture shift. 

“It makes a difference for relatives to have an advocate coming into their home who reminds them that, ‘Listen, we're here, we can help you through this,’” she said. “We know it seems daunting, but in the end it’s going to help you and it’s going to ensure the best care that this child or children can receive in your home.”

How kinship navigators help counties

Counties can also seek help from the New York State Kinship Navigator, created 18 years ago. The resource and referral program takes some of the workload off county caseworkers by educating willing kinship caregivers about their options and referring them to local services. 

But local governments don't turn to the network often enough, and the resource is under-utilized, said the Kinship Navigator’s director, Rae Glaser. She noted that when navigators are brought in, counties’ kin placement rates improve.

George and April Backus with their grandson. Provided photo.

The Family Enrichment Network in the Southern Tier Region’s Broome County is an example. There, the local kinship service assists relatives and “fictive kin” — any adult with a positive relationship to the child, like neighbors and family friends — with financial help, offers advice on custody options and runs a support group. 

April and George Backus, who live outside Binghamton, were among those assisted. In 2020,  their newborn grandson had been left in a Broome County hospital by their son and his partner, both of whom were battling drug addiction. Broome County’s child protection workers asked the couple if they would care for the infant, and they agreed. 

April Backus was 53 at the time, and her husband was 68. Taking custody of a newborn turned their world upside down, April Backus said. 

“We were thinking, ‘What are we going to do now? We have a baby,” she recalled. 

Deb Faulks.

County social workers quickly connected them with the Family Enrichment Network’s support group — whose members, like the Backuses, were caring for relatives’ children. The group shared tips on everything from how to get through the foster care licensing process to preparing for a home inspection. They offered advice and helped gather donated clothes for the baby. 

Two years later, the couple adopted their grandson. 

“I don't think I would have survived without that group,” Backus said. 

While Broome County’s kinship foster rate is 3% below the state average of 39%, it is on the rise, up from 18% in 2019. 

“Once upon a time, there must have been five kinship foster care homes in the entire county — it just didn’t happen,” said Deb Faulks, a director at the Family Enrichment Network. “There’s been a huge, huge change.” 

Disclosure: The Imprint, through its parent nonprofit Fostering Media Connections, receives funding from The Annie E. Casey Foundation, which compiled data cited in this story.

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