When kids in New Jersey need to be taken from their homes due to unfortunate circumstances such as abuse and neglect, their next stop isn't what most people may think of as a traditional foster home.

There's been a big push in the Garden State to connect these kids with a relative, family friend or close contact, because statistics suggest these types of connections make a big difference in outcomes for the impacted children.

"If they go into kinship care, they're less likely to move around while in placement, because they feel connected, they're with someone familiar," said Darlene Fusco, deputy director for the Division of Child Protection and Permanency within the New Jersey Department of Children and Families.

Fusco said data also show that kids placed in kinship care are more likely to go back home and be reunified with their original family, which is the ultimate goal for children in placement.

"To be frank, while we always understood it to be important, it wasn't as focused as we would want it to be," Fusco said.

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But some transformational goals were introduced when Christine Norbut Beyer took over as DCF commissioner in 2018, Fusco said. In 2019, 45% of children who entered placement were placed with kin within 30 days of removal. In March of this year, the rate was 70%, according to DCF data.

DCF wants to hit a rate of 80%. All kinship caregivers have to be licensed and trained, just like traditional foster parents.

"Kinship doesn't necessarily have to be a blood relative. It can be a teacher, it can be a coach," said Corinne LeBaron, CEO of embrella, a New Jersey foster care nonprofit. "It's about what's best for the child."

As part of National Kinship Month, embrella will host its first annual Kinship Conference on Sept. 18. The virtual event will feature workshops and networking experiences for kinship families.

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