How Kinship Care Transformed Allegheny County’s Child-Welfare System
Once one of the worst agencies of its kind in the country, the office of Children, Youth and Families is now a model of success.
In 1993, Sharon McDaniel saw an opportunity.
The need was dire, but McDaniel felt that her career had built up to that moment — the opportunity to tackle a desperately broken part of Allegheny County operations. McDaniel wanted to create a kinship care agency for the county’s cratered foster care system.
In those days, Allegheny County’s child-welfare systems had earned a reputation as among the worst in the nation. High-profile contentious cases and child deaths kept the embattled system in the national spotlight. Children and Youth Services (CYS) had so many violations they could only get six-month provisional licenses from the state.
A 1995 headline in Pittsburgh Magazine asked: “Can CYS be fixed?”
It didn’t look promising, but McDaniel knew her vision could work. Her goal: to make sure that kids could stay with extended family or close family friends, the method called kinship care, instead of being placed with strangers or in congregate care (known informally as group homes).
When McDaniel was 2 years old, her mother died, leaving behind three children and their 24-year-old father. Struggling without the resources available to single fathers today, her dad looked to his family for help; McDaniel’s baby brother was placed with their aunt, while McDaniel and her older sister went to live with a family friend. She stayed in the foster care system, living with family and friends, until college graduation. Her experience in kinship care shaped how she viewed her future — “All I wanted to do was become a child welfare caseworker” — and everything she’s done with it since.
When McDaniel became a caseworker in 1984, “honoring one’s lived experience was not even discussed.” She knew, however, what was at stake when kinship placements weren’t prioritized — even though, on the books, they were supposed to be. In practice, long after children had been removed, “grandparents were calling me saying, ‘I didn’t know that I could be a resource for my grandchild and no one from the county told me about that.’ I recognized that something was broken at the front end of the system.”
When Allegheny County requested proposals for foster care agencies in 1993, McDaniel was ready. She opened A Second Chance in July 1994; by the end of December, they had taken on 350 children from the backlogged county system. “I knew that I could not fail the kinship triad [of parents, children and extended family],” says McDaniel, who is the organization’s CEO.
McDaniel hired employees with lived experience, setting an agency policy that at least 25% of the staff be made up of individuals who spent time in the system. “They help other caseworkers understand what the child might be going through,” she says.
In 1997, Allegheny County hired Marc Cherna to head the newly consolidated Department of Human Services (DHS) and to try to salvage CYS, later renamed Children, Youth and Families (CYF). He supported McDaniel’s work and encouraged buy-in throughout the rest of the system.
Over the next 20 years, the kinship placement rate rose to 50% and, along the way, the county repaired its national reputation. In 2017, A Second Chance and CYF paired to create a kinship navigator program, and the results were swift: In 2019, 67% of placements were kinship, compared to 32% nationally.
It’s a far cry from the ’90s. Now, McDaniel says, “Allegheny County is the model.”
Jacki Hoover, CYF’s Deputy Director, says, “You don’t often meet people like Sharon. There’s a lot of people who grow up and give back, [but] the fact that she’s dedicated her entire life … she takes it to a different level.” She adds that McDaniel “constantly challenges all of us to work harder.”
In 1993, “the need to diversify the provider network was critical,” McDaniel says. There was only one other African-American-led provider at the time. “When A Second Chance came to the table, we put in the cultural competency piece, the race equity piece.” Black children are disproportionately represented in the foster care system — about 63 percent in 2021 (down from 80 percent in 1993), while the Black child population is less than 12 percent. For McDaniel, this means bringing attention to how families are viewed prior to and after a child’s removal.
McDaniel was a trailblazer in what has become a growing push for system-wide changes to child welfare. Now, from caseworkers to peer support — and from grassroots organizations to Congress — current and former foster youth have increasing opportunities to advocate for change and to help make a traumatic experience more manageable. DHS is investing in the unique expertise of those who know the realities of the foster system from experience.
When Precious Bey-Lewis was 7, she entered kinship care with her grandmother, who later adopted her — an outcome that allowed her to stay in contact with her dad and other family members. In 2019, Bey-Lewis became a Youth Support Partner, a unit in DHS that pairs young adults who spent time in child-serving systems (foster care, juvenile probation, behavioral health, etc.) with youth currently in those systems.
It’s a full-time, county job made more accessible by only requiring a high school diploma or GED and one year of combined work experience; the position also creates a pathway to advancement within DHS. The emphasis on internal promotion, senior program manager Ashley Menefee says, ensures that people with lived experience have access to career growth and that the integrity of the program remains intact.
Menefee was among the first Youth Support Partners in 2008. Since then, the county has hired more than 150 young adults; the current unit contains 25 Youth Support Partners, six supervisors, and seven manager/coordinators.
Hoover says peer support is “an age-old intervention” that fell out of fashion, “but now, because it does work so well, is being really, really brought back.” DHS’s peer network also includes support for parents as well as peer support specialists who work with individuals suffering with a substance use disorder.
Darren Lucza, another Youth Support Partner, bounced around foster and congregate care placements until he aged out at 21. He says having a team that “kept me updated on what was gonna happen next” was a great help. “I knew about the meetings; I knew about my court hearings ahead of time,” something he doesn’t always see for the youth he works with. “[It] involves them, but they’re not being involved.” Part of his focus now is finding and sharing similar information.
Fellow Youth Support Partner Erica Jennings agrees that a bevy of system-related adults doesn’t always translate into a “more thorough support system” and an “actual person to help you understand.” While Youth Support Partners are not allowed to make major decisions for youth, they can share by having been there.
Throughout high school, Jennings spent time in shelters and foster placements before aging out at 18 through the independent living program. She says that it was difficult to have a typical teenage experience. “We weren’t allowed to have phones, we weren’t allowed to communicate, we weren’t … eligible to just go out and work. Once we were in a placement, once we were in a shelter, we were there.”
“My system experience is very different than what our most recent staff’s system experience would have been,” Menefee says. When she was in care, “there were much tighter regulations and a lot of barriers that prohibited placement [with] people that you were already familiar and comfortable with. And now, I do think that the Youth Support Partner unit is a big contributing factor to getting youth voice and choice out there.”
Jennings and Bey-Lewis have advocated for reducing the county’s dependence on congregate care. Unit director Amanda Hirsh says, because of input from youth — and with the support of a federal grant — the county began emphasizing resource family recruitment and lessening barriers for kinship care.
Hirsh says, “I have seen the changes over 11 years … our system partners have evolved to value and to ask for Youth Support Partners. I think we’ve been really fortunate here in this county to have their voices truly heard.”
Youth voices have also led to quality-of-life resources. Among other initiatives, the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation provides the program Affirm to support LGBTQ+ and questioning 14- to 21-year-olds; the Kids Esteem Enhancement Program provides Undercover Confidence, which fits young people for, and supplies them with, bras or gender-affirming undergarments as well as teaching other forms of self-care.
As for the work ahead, common foster care advocacy themes across the country include educating youth about their rights while in care, providing services for youth transitioning out of the care system and maintaining connections with siblings. “I always wanted to keep in touch with my siblings,” Bey-Lewis says. “I was wanting to hang out with them or know where they are, those types of things.” She would like sibling relationships emphasized either through the same placement or, if that’s not possible, having scheduled visits, casual hangouts and overnights.
Lucza says more training for foster caregivers regarding teenagers is necessary as well. Teenagers “come with a lot of baggage … they’ve lived a lot of life already. They’re coming with their history and their past, and that’s a lot for them to carry,” he says. “And then you’re just expecting them to come in and be fine with everything.” What some adults see as acting out is a teenager “only reacting because of their past trauma.”
A traumatic past, as well as traumas possible within foster care (from the process of being removed from their home, disruption of life at each additional placement, abuse from foster caregivers, etc.), as well as a lack of financial and emotional safety nets contribute to frequently bleak outcomes for former foster youth. Nationally, 20% of foster youth who age out of the system do so to homelessness. Only 50% graduate from high school, and 33% of girls will become pregnant while in care. A 2019 series in the Kansas City Star found that one in four incarcerated individuals surveyed had been in foster care growing up.
On average between 2006 and 2016 in Allegheny County, 12 to 22% of youth experienced at least one night of homelessness upon aging out. By their 21st birthdays, 63% were charged with a crime; 56% of women and 30% of men became parents. These outcomes increase the chances, too, that a former foster youth will someday have their own children removed.
Placement with organizations such as A Second Chance dramatically reduces the frequency of those outcomes. In Allegheny County, youth in kinship care have a 95% high school graduation rate and a 1% teenage pregnancy rate.
Over the course of nearly 40 years, McDaniel has seen the change in how child welfare systems view former foster youth. “Today, those with lived experience are valued, sought after, and I would offer that their organizations experience better outcomes,” she says.
Her own work didn’t stop with increasing kinship placements. In the early 2000s, McDaniel brought to the forefront permanency through subsidized guardianship. It’s common across the country for caregivers to be forced to adopt a child if reunification isn’t possible — so that the child can be discharged from the system. Guardianship also accomplishes this but does not require parental rights to be terminated. Older children and teenagers might not want that legal tie severed, or a grandmother may not want to do that to her own child. The subsidy creates resource parity so that guardianship comes with the same financial stipend and insurance benefits that foster care and adoption do. Allegheny County was the first in Pennsylvania to offer this.
“We have to understand that poverty does not mean that people don’t love their kids, or they are abusive,” McDaniel says. “If you say, ‘They may be impoverished, but they’re going to school, [getting] good grades. Mom is maybe underemployed but trying to do her level best, [using] the community support to help her along the way,’” then the focus can shift to recognizing the family’s resiliency and bolstering community resources so that CYF need not become involved at all.
Meanwhile, the Youth Support Partners provide a testament to the resiliency and the importance of supportive communities. Jennings says, “I’m watching some youth be at a down place and building themselves up with [my] support.”
She leans into her own past to offer inspiration when needed: “Hey, I was in a rough situation, so you’re not alone. But let me show you how far I got. Let me show you how you can still be successful, no matter the barriers that you have.”