Ramona Denby-Brinson’s stairwell explodes with faces. Black-and-white images of people in pleated suits and frilly dresses. Colorized portraits of couples from the 1960s. Modern-day school photos of her children.
Looking at this wall two things are obvious: She has a large family, and family is important to her.
Denby-Brinson is one of 10 children and a twin. Her father was a police officer and her mother a teacher — common professions in her family alongside a handful of nurses and a minister.
“Almost my entire family does something related to public service,” she says. “It’s in my blood. And it was impressed upon my siblings and I that we have a responsibility to our neighbors. We have a responsibility for what’s going on in our community. Life isn’t just about caring for yourself or your achievements or your goals. Your goals should be to serve something or someone else.”
Her mother, in particular, impressed that notion upon her as one of the co-organizers of the Las Vegas branch of Head Start — a national early childhood education program for low-resource children and families.
Denby-Brinson was also an observant child. After her family moved to a more affluent Nevada suburb when she was 9 years old, she noticed an improvement in her school and her parents’ jobs.
“That made me start wondering about opportunity and advantage,” she shares. “I was often that kid that would say, ‘That’s not fair.’ I would see things that were unfair, and I wanted to do something about that. From an early age, I had this desire to try to right some of the wrongs.”
That desire suited Denby-Brinson well for a career in social work. Today, she is an expert in kinship care — when children with absent parents are cared for by relatives or close family friends rather than the foster system — and has been dean of the UNC School of Social Work since 2021.
For the last 30 years, Denby-Brinson has pushed for more policies that consider relatives as caregivers, and her research shows that this drastically improves a child’s home life, mental health, school experiences, and economic situation compared to children placed in foster homes.
“Kinship care is a protective factor,” she says. “We get a host of positive outcomes when children are placed with relatives — and that placement is therapeutic for them. When we support these caregivers, children do well.”
An emergency situation
Before pursuing academic research, Denby-Brinson spent years serving as a medical social worker at a Nevada county hospital. She worked across units, including the emergency room.
“We dreaded the emergency room,” she says. “You never knew what was coming through the door or what doctors needed you to do.”
She recalls an entire day spent helping a homeless man get discharged and into a safe place for the evening. When she returned the next day, he was back in the ER — and sicker than when he left.
“I remember thinking something is broken within our system,” she says. “We have to do something more here.”
For Denby-Brinson, that meant going back to school to get her PhD in social work. She enrolled in the program at The Ohio State University, where she began studying foster care.
“That interest came from my days in the ER and having the unfortunate job of having to call child protective services when we suspected abuse or neglect,” she says. “I wanted to know how we recruit and retain good foster parents.”
Her three most-cited studies are about foster care. Two unpack why foster parents continue to take in children — or cease to — and their overall satisfaction, and the third reveals the Black foster parent experience, specifically. She found that parents need more support, training, and respect from social workers and other agency officials. Other pain points include compensation, the types of children placed with parents, and the involuntary closure of homes.
Through this work, she discovered a class of parents experiencing those problems, but equipped with fewer resources and attention: kinship caregivers.
A stark reality
In her 2016 book, Denby-Brinson presents a case study on a woman named Charmaine Brown. When she was in her early 20s, Brown received a phone call from Child Protective Services. It was far from the first and, like the others, she knew it meant bad news. Her 18-month-old niece Deidre was in critical condition in the hospital, and the toddler’s two brothers were in protective custody.
Their mother, Brown’s sister, struggled with drug addiction, and Brown had been asked on multiple occasions to take care of the children, sometimes for as long as six months. But this time around, she and her brother Kevin would become their permanent caregivers.
Approximately 10% of the nation’s children are raised by relatives, and there are approximately 8 million kinship caregivers in the United States. But those numbers are purely estimates. Formal carers like Charmaine and Kevin take in children through the legal system, meaning their parenthood is recorded in state documents. But millions of informal carers lack documentation.
“That’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, even siblings taking care of younger siblings. These families never come into contact with public systems,” Denby-Brinson points out. “And most people assume these caregivers are the child’s biological parents. It’s that group that’s really underserved.”
As a field of study, kinship care was in its infancy when Denby-Brinson began interviewing caregivers while on the faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the early 1990s. But the concept was far from new. Relatives have taken care of children for centuries. As a society, though, we knew little about them. Denby-Brinson was determined to change that.
Most kinship caregivers are women of color. About 50% are single and unemployed, and those with jobs often have low incomes. These guardians save the government billions of dollars in childcare, according to Denby-Brinson, and the benefits they provide to kids can be enormous. But for these caregivers to be truly successful, they need support.
“If a child is placed with a caregiver who is supported, they don’t bounce from home to home like foster children. There’s more stability. They often go on to be adopted, do better academically and economically, and have less interface with the criminal justice system.”
Support is more than financial. One of Denby-Brinson’s most successful studies created and assessed a peer-to-peer program pairing new relative caregivers with paid, experienced ones. These “kinship liaisons” shared valuable information about caregiver rights and responsibilities, foster care licensure training, and the permanency process. Overall, this helped new caregivers cope and improved their likelihood of becoming permanent guardians.
The program was so successful that it has been permanently funded in Nevada and recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Many other child and family programs have modeled their interventions after this approach.
Denby-Brinson’s research has also pushed for better state and federal policies that offer preference to relatives first and financial support to those who do take in children. In 2014, the University of Las Vegas acknowledged her success with its highest honor: the Harry Reid Silver State Research Award. She was the first female researcher to receive the award since its creation in 2001.
But fighting public perceptions of these caregivers continues to be a challenge. Many of these children are abandoned because their biological parents struggle with addiction, have severe mental health or behavioral problems, or become incarcerated.
“There’s so much stigma against these families,” Denby-Brinson shares. “You hear this expression a lot: ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’ Meaning if these parents are so horrible that they lost their children, then the relatives are probably like that, too. But their childrearing skills help produce positive health and well-being for millions of children.”
That’s why nearly every project Denby-Brinson has worked on includes salaried positions for kinship caregivers. She and her team train them to do data collection, interviews, and analysis — and many have gone back to school to become social workers or researchers.
The call to serve
In June 2023, Denby-Brinson received $1.7 million from The Duke Endowment for a study on kinship caregivers raising children with special needs. A collaboration with other researchers from UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of South Carolina, the five-year intervention — called KinCarolina — aims to strengthen support for these caregivers.
Oftentimes, administrators struggle to find the time to pursue active, on-the-ground projects on top of their other responsibilities, but Denby-Brinson is excited to be back in the field.
“I’m going to get my street credibility back, doing some real data collection and real social work,” she says with a laugh.
In truth, that service to the community continues to drive Denby-Brinson — and it’s what drew her to Carolina in 2021. She admits that she wasn’t interested in leaving her faculty position at The Ohio State University until a colleague encouraged her multiple times to apply for the open deanship at the UNC School of Social Work.
“I wasn’t convinced until I met Kevin Guskiewicz,” she shares. “It was the way he talked about the public mission and about serving all 100 counties. A public university for the public. It drew me right back to the value system I had been raised with: My community, my neighborhood, and my state are my responsibility.”