One of the more striking patterns of recent change in the American child welfare system has been major growth in the number of children in state custody who are being placed in the care of their own relatives. This rapid expansion of kinship foster care has not occurred uniformly across the United States; rather it has been concentrated in certain states and regions, and among certain racial/ethnic groups. However, the shifts have been sufficiently dramatic to have importance that is fully national in scope. In part, this broader importance is due to the substantial impact that kinship foster care has had on the national child welfare caseload. About 150,000 children, roughly one-third of all children in foster care, are currently placed in formal kinship foster care arrangements in the United States.
It might be argued that the emergence of widely varying policies and practices regarding kinship foster care placement reflects a climate of governmental uncertainty; individually, states are grappling with fundamental issues about their role and responsibility for dealing with the needs and rights of children and families. There are many bellwethers that kinship foster care is at the tip of deep and controversial public issues: among these are the broad proliferation of state policy responses, the absence of practical consensus at any governmental level, and the frequency with which actual practice mandates have been decided in the judicial system. It is an issue that is forcing a reconsideration of the role of foster care and the prevailing guidelines of child protection and permanency planning. It is an issue that forces us to determine mechanisms for evaluating the role of the nuclear versus the extended family, and for considering if there is any difference in public responses to the needs of either. And there is widespread concern that this issue is one that may become inextricably involved in the national discussion of poverty and welfare reform.
While the practice of placing some child wards of the state in the care of extended family members has been taking place for many years, the phenomenon of its widespread use didn't begin until the mid 1980's, and the awareness of kinship foster care as an important trend among child welfare analysts dates from the early 1990's.
For example, in an agenda-setting policy seminar held at the U.S. Capitol in January 1990 entitled "The crisis in foster care: New directions for the 1990's", the only mention of kinship care by one of the three national child welfare experts on the panel involved an acknowledgement that some states were meeting the problem of a reduction in available foster homes by placing more children with relatives (Ooms, 1990). The literature on kinship care is recent, and is not yet integrative. For the purpose of review, it will be separated into discussions that bear on description of a.) the recent growth in kinship care, b.) empirical comparisons of the characteristics and experiences of children in kinship care placements to those of children in more traditional non-family foster care placements, c.) discussions of the legal and policy issues which are involved in kinship foster care. This work will be discussed in section I.
To examine kinship foster care within a wider social context, and to anticipate some of the issues that can be expected to emerge in the process of national welfare reform, it is useful to consider the current and historical patterns of kinship care that occur without specific regard to the involvement of state custody and the child welfare system. Many children are cared for by relatives other than a parent, on a temporary basis or throughout the full term of their childhood. These arrangements do not require the state to take custody of the child, indeed most are privately arranged by agreement between the parent and the kin caretaker -- sometimes involving a legal transfer of authority or guardianship rights to the relative. For the purpose of this work, all such caretaker arrangements that are made without the state actually having legal custody of the child are considered together as informal kinship care, which is distinguished from formal kinship foster care. The literature describing trends in the living arrangements of children and specifically describing issues in informal kinship caregiving will be discussed in Section II.