When 22-year-old Kristian Trump Goerman died of a drug overdose in January, she left behind two young children. Trump Goerman had long battled an opioid addiction, and child welfare officials had removed 4-year-old Cameron and 1-year-old Layla May from her care about a year before her death.
The family’s case supervisor, Heather Carpenter, said the family had hoped the children would ultimately be reunified with their mother.
“And so with her sudden loss, it left them all just all over the place, [with] uncertainties about, ‘Well, if not her, then who?’” Carpenter said.
The children’s father could eventually gain custody, but in the meantime, the answer to Carpenter’s question is great-grandmother Patricia Savulchak. With Carpenter’s guidance, Savulchak has become the certified foster parent to her granddaughter's children.
Other relatives pitch in, but at age 74, Savulchak has, in effect, become a single parent.
She and the two children now live in her McKees Rocks home of nearly 40 years, which frequently buzzes with activity: they have a dog and other family members often stop in to visit.
Savulchak had been planning to sell the home and even signed up for senior housing, but she put those plans on hold to take in her two great-grandchildren.
“Everybody I talked to – my friends say, ‘I wouldn’t do that. If I had that problem, I would never do it,’” Savulchak remembers. “But I said, nobody’s taking my kids and letting them get hurt.”
Savulchak’s experience reflects one way Allegheny County’s Office of Children, Youth and Families, or CYF, is trying to manage the opioid crisis, which has left many parents unable to care for their kids. The county is increasingly asking the relatives and family friends of these parents to step in.
This approach is called kinship care, and while the county has used it since 1990, it’s becoming more common. With recent investments, CYF has increased the percentage of kids it places in kinship care from about 50 percent in 2015, to 65 percent today.
CYF Deputy Director Walter Smith said the expanded use of kinship care has helped the child welfare system to absorb rising caseloads driven by the opioid crisis. County data show that, in the last year-and-a-half, the number of kids needing care has jumped by nearly 20 percent.
“If not for that shift,” Smith said, “we would be in big crisis because kinship care, family foster care costs much, much less than group homes and residential settings.”
Unlike group homes, kinship care doesn’t require dedicated facilities and round-the-clock staffing.
But kinship care comes with other benefits, according to Smith.
“We think that’s better because it provides long-term, stable relationships and connections for kids,” he said. “Every child needs to be in a setting where they have long-term relationships with people who care about them.”
This wasn’t always the prevailing wisdom, according to Gretchen Perry, a professor of social work at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada.
“Historically, there was a sense that children were in difficult circumstances because of the homes they were in,” she explained. “And if these were not good homes, then the environment generally, meaning the extended family, was in question as well.”
But according to Perry, in the 1980s and '90s, child welfare systems were buckling under mounting caseloads due in part to greater awareness of child abuse and neglect, beginning in the 1960s.
Systems, Perry said, started to turn to extended family as potential caregivers.
“And that was really a major sea change in alternative caregiving that really required a whole different philosophy in terms of child protection and how they were functioning,” she said.
The approach didn’t turn out to be as risky as once thought.
Research from the Pittsburgh-based agency A Second Chance, which handles Allegheny County’s kinship care cases, shows that clients have performed better than the average American foster child on a host of measures. For example, they’re more likely to graduate high school, less likely to experience teen pregnancy and stand a greater chance of being reunified with their parents.
But Perry’s research indicates that the quality of care a child receives could depend on what type of kin the child is placed with. She has found that kids tend to experience more stable and longer-term care with blood relatives than with family friends or others in the community.
“This idea of, you know, blood is thicker than water, really is a nice way of describing the sort of natural emotional adaptations of how we relate to our family and our willingness to commit to them in a different way than we do to strangers or just friends,” Perry said.
Still, challenges with kinship care remain. In families caught up in the opioid crisis, problems like substance use disorder and poverty often affect multiple generations, according to Carpenter.
“We’re finding that more of those family members in that demographic have been dealing with these issues for quite a while,” Carpenter said.
Some families might need extra support to take on the responsibility of caring for children.
Taking in Cameron and Layla May has involved significant cost and sacrifice, said Savulchak.
“It’s been a change, that’s for sure,” Savulchak said, “Especially [at] my age. I didn’t think I’d be raising two little kids at my age.”
To help lighten the burden, the county, through its partnership with A Second Chance, provides caregivers with counseling, transportation and help around the house. The caregivers also get paid, just like any other foster parent.
But it’s not a perfect solution. Kinship care still asks a lot of relatives like Savulchak, who said she’s been losing weight and sleep due to the demands of caring for her two great-grandkids.
“I know when they do get their own place, I’m going to miss them very much, but yet I need that little break, too,” Savulchak said.
In the best of cases, kinship care leads to permanent placement with a family member. But even if it doesn’t, child welfare officials say it’s the highest-quality and most stable care they can provide to many children entangled in an opioid crisis that’s only expected to get worse.