Description of Kinship Foster Care Growth
The foster care population of the United States has grown rapidly over the past decade, following a period of relative stability. National estimates provided by the American Public Welfare Association suggest that about 442,000 children were in substitute care at the end of 1992, an increase of around 60% from the end of 1985 (Tatara, 1993). This increase has been attributed to many factors. Social explanations have included increased reporting of abuse and neglect, a change in drug usage patterns related to the spread of crack cocaine addiction, and increased levels of poverty. Child welfare system explanations have included increased durations of stay in care, relative reductions in caseworker staffing, and in many states, changes in policy required to obtain compliance with court-ordered reform.
The rapid expansion of kinship foster care as a common placement solution has occurred simultaneously with this recent period of rapid overall growth in foster care. National counts of kinship foster care are not available, as many states do not separate relatives from unrelated foster parents in their reporting systems. The HHS Inspector General obtained 1990 data from 29 states identifying 80,000 children who received foster care from relatives (HHS Office of the Inspector General, 1992). In the 25 of these states where trend data are available, the proportion of foster children in kinship placements increased from 18% in 1986 to 31% in 1990, with most of the actual kinship growth occurring in three states: New York, Illinois, and California. Recent trend data for these three states shows that the share of all foster care provided in the homes of relatives has continued to increase. Between 1988 and 1993, kinship services as a percentage of all foster care rose from 32% to 54% in Illinois, from 22% to 45% in California, and from 23% to 36% in New York (Goerge, Wulczyn & Harden, 1995).
Discussion continues as to whether the growth of kinship care is leading or following the general growth in foster care. On the one hand, a decline in the availability of traditional foster homes is often used to explain an increasing reliance on the use of kinship foster homes by state child welfare agencies. Between 1985 and 1990, the number of foster families declined by 27% while the number of foster children increased by 47% (National Foster Parent Association, 1991). On the other hand, the enhanced availability of foster care support to kinship families, and particularly the high foster care maintenance payments, is often put forward as an explanation for general foster care growth. Clearly though, the door has been opened for kinship foster care. A key Supreme Court decision in Youakim vs Miller (1979) determined that relative caregivers cannot be denied federal foster care benefits if otherwise eligible. HHS reported that 29 states required kinship preference in placing foster children in 1990 (HHS Office of the Inspector General, 1992).
Children in Kinship Foster Care
As researchers became aware of the growth in formal relative caregiving arrangements within the child welfare system, their initial efforts turned mostly towards characterizing this type of placement and evaluating the effectiveness of kinship care within the child welfare system.
The potential benefits attributed to kinship foster care are that it involves less disruption to the child than placement with strangers, in that the placement is connected to their existing personal support network, community, and cultural background. Many states have justified kinship preference as meeting the "least restrictive" guidelines of PL 96-272. Some early analysts argued that placement with relatives would increase the likelihood of reunification with parents by maintaining close family contacts (c.f. Hill, 1977). Potential problems attributed to kinship foster care are that it involves more protective risk by encouraging parental access, that it places children in care situations with undertrained, overburdened and often unsupervised custodians (Fein & Maluccio, 1992), that providing foster care payment to extended family member may deter reunification or adoption (Meyer & Link, 1990), and that it might represent excessive governemental incursion into the role of the family (Testa, 1994).
Descriptions of kinship foster care providers suggest that the caregivers are older, more often single, disproportionally African American, poorer, less educated, and less likely to be employed than non-kin foster parents (Berrick, Barth, & Needell, 1994; Le Prohn 1994). That foster parent training requirements are often waived for relative caregivers extends this description of kin caregivers having less resources. However, LeProhn also found that kin foster parents behaved more like biological parents by assuming more of the affective parenting responsibilities than did non-relative foster parents. The children in kinship care arrangements, apart from the ethnic differences, have not been demonstrated to differ appreciably from other foster children in a significant manner. Importantly, these children do not appear to be at higher risk of future abuse or neglect than do other foster children (Testa, 1994).
Kinship placements are more stable than non-kin foster care, in that the children are moved to another placement from a relative home far less frequently than from a non-family foster home (Tatara, 1993; Berrick, Barth & Needell, 1994; LeProhn & Pecora, 1994). Kinship placements also last longer than other placements, with lower rates of reunification and lower rates of all other discharges (Wulczyn & Goerge, 1992; Barth, Courtney, Berrick & Albert). In a pooled three-state study of five years worth of case histories, Goerge, Wulczyn & Harden (1994) found that the median kinship placement spell was 30% longer than other placement spells, even after controlling for the effects of year of entry, metro/non-metro residence, age, ethnicity, at entry to foster care, and state. Because kinship placements are correlated with African American ethnicity and urban residence, both of which independently contribute to longer durations, the gross impact of increased kinship care on duration and caseload size can be very large.
Examining factors related to observable outcome differences between kinship and other foster care, Iglehart (1994) looked at a sample of adolescents and found no real difference in educational and behavioral outcomes between kinship and non-family foster children, except that kinship foster children had somewhat fewer serious mental health problems. LeProhn & Pecora (1994) also found few differences in behavioral outcomes between kin and non-kin foster children. The one area where differences have been consistently observed involves access to services. Several research efforts have documented that kinship foster children receive less preventative health care and medical services , fewer caseworker visits, and less case planning and supervision (GAO, 1995; Dubowitz, Feigelman & Zuravin, 1993).
A consistent and controversial portrayal emerges from the literature on kinship care. On most observable measures, children in kinship care arrangements appear to doing as well or better than other foster children, although they have access to fewer service resources than do foster children in non-kinship placements. Kinship placements are more stable, but they are also more likely to be "permanent". Long-term kinship care as a permanent arrangement is not consistent with the current policy structure of most states, and the tension between policy and this reality has significant ramifications for child welfare planning.
Kinship Policy and Practice
The placement of foster children with relatives is not new, but before the 1980's this arrangement was atypical, and generally used in "specific" or last-resort situations (Kusserow, 1992). In federal policy, kinship care was first addressed in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-608) which made explicit allowance for extended family placements. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272), which is the primary federal blueprint for the present child welfare system, makes no specific reference to kinship care, although an early version of the bill did contain language requiring preference for relatives (Spar, 1993). However, the provision of the Act for placement in the "least restrictive" and "most family-like" setting has been interpreted by many state policy makers as justifying or mandating a relative preference.
Many states practiced a two-tier system of child welfare payment, where non-family foster parents were reimbursed at the foster care maintenance rate, and relative caregivers were reimbursed at the AFDC rate. While rates vary among states, the foster care rate is usually higher, and often much higher, than the AFDC rate. More importantly, the child-based foster care rate is additive in cases where multiple children are in care in a single household, while the incremental change in the AFDC rate is scaled down for additional children. In the landmark kinship care court case, Youakim vs Miller, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that relatives who were otherwise eligible could not be excluded from federal foster care benefits.
Interpretation of federal policy and child welfare law has varied widely among the states. From 31 states who provided materials on kinship care policy, Gleeson and Craig (1994) found that these policies are based on varying combinations of statute, administrative policy, and case law. In 21 of states, relatives are the first priority placement resource for a child removed from home, and eight of these states require the agency to search for an appropriate relative caregiver. Seventeen states waive specific standards (most commonly training) for relatives to become "approved" caregivers. The primary difference between kinship foster care policies among states has to do with qualifications for reimbursement. Youakim vs Miller applies only to IV-E eligible children (those who were AFDC-eligible, who are physically moved from a residence, and who are cared for in licensed foster homes). While 16 of the 31 states evaluated will pay foster care boarding rates to all relatives, six of these states will only do so if the child is IV-E eligible, with the remaining kinship care cases receiving the AFDC rate. States also vary in whether they will pay the foster care rate to an "approved" relative home that is not licensed. As federal reimbursement remains tied to IV-E eligibility, these decisions have dramatic fiscal implications for the states, and great impact on the practical implications of kinship foster care.
Paying the full foster care rate to kinship care providers is easily justified as an issue of equality, in that relatives should not be penalized for providing the same service to the state for which a non-relative would be paid. However, the higher foster care payments may be acting as an enticement to bring kinship care units into the foster care system, and they may be providing an inducement to delay discharges and reunification efforts. As long as a significant discrepancy exists between foster care board payments and the AFDC rate, "perverse incentives" will exist in state and federal kinship care policy (Courtney, 1995). Even prior to the growth of kinship care, the "double-system" implied by IV-E eligibility was critiqued as leading to undesirable policies regarding children in need (Gershenson, 1990).
Gleeson & Craig also warn of the broader consequences that extended kinship foster care, by virtue of bringing more child needs under the auspices of the formal social services sector, may have the undesired effect of discouraging continuation of the informal helping systems of families and communities, and unnecessarily intrude on the helping process.
Largely due to a long history of court-initiated decisions, Illinois has been the state with the most inclusive policy towards kinship foster care, and has also had the most dramatic growth in what it terms "home of relative" (HMR) placements.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services attributes this growth primarily to a shift in public definition of the responsibilities of the parent vs the extended family
(McDonald, 1995). While many other factors have contributed (e.g. Illinois was the defendant in the Youakim lawsuit, relaxed HMR approval standards replaced licensing, and a statutory preference for relatives was passed by the legislature), the period of profound growth in kinship foster care occurred after an Appellate Court decision (People vs. Thornton, 1990) led to a redefinition of neglect. Thornton was interpreted as requiring a shift from a "home-based definition, in which IDCFS takes protective custody only when conditions in the relative's home pose a threat, to a parent-based definition, in which IDCFS takes protective custody whenever the parents are derelict in their responsibilities no matter the quality of care that is available to the children" (Testa. 1994). This broadening of the state's protective jurisdiction led to a rapid increase in indicated neglect allegations for "lack of supervision" and to many additional cases where the state assumed custody of children from pre-existing informal kinship care cases, IDCFS considers the "blurring of boundaries" between formal and informal kinship care to be a fundamental problem in child welfare.
A clear finding of all policy reviews in the area of kinship foster care is that policy is far from uniform. Placement preferences, assessment procedures, licensing and approval regulations, case monitoring levels, payment criteria, and rate levels all vary from state to state. Undoubtedly practice can vary between administrative units within each state as well.