How GRAND Voices Network Member Sarah Smalls is Caring for Her Grandchildren Despite a Rough Start in the Child Welfare System

By Sarah Smalls

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When asked to describe the typical American family structure, most people would likely name two people in a binary union accompanied by a child or children. However, this rigid family structure has evolved, and the multigenerational family unit has experienced extreme growth over the last decade. The number of multigenerational households increased by 21.6 million, jumping from 42.4 million in 2000 to 64 million in 2016. Data collected shows 1 in 5 American households are classified as multigenerational. I am a GRAND Voices Network Member and my experience with Virginia’s child welfare system shows the importance of grandfamilies as a successful alternative to the foster care system.

Grandfamilies are families in which children are being raised by grandparents, other extended family members, and adults with close family-like relationships such as godparents and close family friends. I am the provider of my grandfamily as I have custody of my grandchildren. It was important for my husband and me to assume legal custody of my grandchildren, so they were not casualties of the child welfare system.

However, I can recall a time I attempted to access state funding on behalf of my granddaughter and because I was not a foster parent, I was made to feel inferior by the caseworker I was speaking to. Routinely, Black grandfamilies are put at a disadvantage or flat out ignored when attempting to utilize services and resources that are available to them. During that same visit, I overheard another client tell the caseworker they did not prefer to take on a child that was not my complexion. I am a fair, lighter complexioned Black woman. This happens at an alarming rate in the foster system. Federal caseworkers make critical decisions based on socio-economic status, physical appearance, and ignorant stereotypes. On a national level, specific policies and legislation passed are discriminatory against demographics that are not white. Not only is this a reflection of how the child welfare system is adverse to Black families, but it is also dangerous for Black youth.

Despite these intentional and unintentional hindrances, grandfamilies are forging their way forward to create dynamic family environments that spur children toward healthy and robust lives. For example, kinship care units are beginning to become more prominent in the child welfare system, which allows for multigenerational households to have their needs acknowledged and prioritized. My experience at my kinship care center really eased the stress I felt at the beginning of my legal custody journey and allowed me to work alongside caseworkers to receive the care I needed to help my grandchildren.

Additionally, Generations United and similar organizations are working to combat those obstacles and other external factors on every level. Generations United’s mission is to improve the lives of children, youth, and older people through intergenerational collaboration, public policies, and programs. Recently, Generations United released their State of Grandfamilies in America Annual Report, which spotlighted the challenges Grandfamilies face and the services they provide children and youth to achieve transformational change. As of 2019, 32% of children in the child welfare system were being raised by relatives so it is important we continue to provide grandfamilies and children receiving kinship care with the tools and resources they need to effectively care for youth.

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Sarah Smalls is a GRAND Voices Network Member from North Virginia.

Listen as Sarah Smalls, Corey Best, and Aliyah Zein share their lived experiences with racism and discrimination in the child welfare system. In this most recent podcast from Family Voices United, they also articulate their vision of an equitable, anti-racist system that supports and strengthens all children and families.

Family Voices United is a joint undertaking by Casey Family Programs, FosterClub, Generations United, and The Children’s Trust Fund Alliance to elevate the voices and experiences of parents, relative caregivers, and young people, transforming systems to support children and families to thrive. Learn more at

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Young people + parents + relative caregivers working together to elevate voices of those with firsthand experience = change in the child welfare system

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