Despite States’ growing reliance on kin as foster parents, questions remain about how to use kin most effectively, including the extent to which they should be treated differently from non-kin foster parents. Moreover, State child welfare officials and other experts have questioned whether existing Federal child welfare policies, developed almost entirely with non-kin foster care in mind, are appropriate for kinship care. Many have also questioned whether public kinship care policies—particularly paying kin to act as foster parents—may undermine private kinship care (Johnson, 1994). Some have argued that using kin as foster parents rather than as informal caregivers results in unnecessary government intrusion into families’ lives (Kinship Care Advisory Panel, 1998) and is at least partially to blame for the massive increase in Federal foster care costs—250 percent between 1988 and 1996 (U.S. House of Representatives, 1998).
Issues of race and class have been, and continue to be, intertwined with child welfare and kinship care policy and practices. Nationally, African American children are overrepresented in reports of abuse or neglect and in the number of children living in foster care (Leashore, McMurry, and Bailey, 1997). Further, the majority of children living in kinship care arrangements are children of color (see Chapter 3). Thus, policies that affect families in the child welfare system, in kinship care, or both, have an especially strong impact on African American families. Many researchers have argued that child welfare practices do not reflect the cultural norms of minority groups and that changes in child welfare policies, especially those related to kinship care, “should be based on a deliberate and conscious recognition of the cultural patterns of various racial and ethnic groups” (Everett, Chipungu, and Leashore, 1997). When looking at race and kinship care, it is important to consider the argument that “African Americans, for example, have relied on extended family and other informal systems of care not only because these informal systems are cultural strengths, but because African American children for many years were excluded from public and private sector child welfare programs” (Bonecutter and Gleeson, 1997).
Issues of race and class also play out in the values surrounding kinship definitions, in determining whether a potential kin caregiver is appropriate for an abused or neglected child, and in deciding what permanency options are appropriate for children in kinship care. It can be argued, for example, that “A lack of understanding of family as defined by non-Western culture has created most of the current debate over what role, if any, kinship care should have in child welfare. The extended family structure has been viewed as a variant family form because its structure is different from what has traditionally been considered the ideal structure of the nuclear family” (Johnson, 1994). Moreover, many observers, including some members of the Kinship Care Advisory Panel, argue that current foster parent home licensing criteria, such as the number of rooms in the foster parent's home (which some States waive for kin), are not related to safety or quality of care but instead reflect middle-class values regarding proper homes (Kinship Care Advisory Panel, 1999). Similarly, while the child welfare system has traditionally considered permanence to be either reunification or adoption, reunification is not always possible, and adoption may not be consistent with the values of some communities. In Native American communities, for example, the legal status afforded by adoption has little relevance or meaning. Instead, “The responsibility to assume care of relatives' children was both implied and expressly stated in the oral traditions and spiritual teachings of most tribes” (Johnson, 1994). Until recently, very little information has existed to help guide Federal or State policy decisions about kinship care. As one child welfare director noted, “The use of kinship care has risen so rapidly that child welfare agencies have been forced to make policy, program, and practice decisions without the benefit of a substantive knowledge base of best practice experience” (Johnson, 1994). While data on the long-term outcomes of kinship care are still limited, a considerable amount of research has been conducted within the last 10 years to document State policies and practices toward public kinship care providers, the characteristics of these providers and the children in their care, and the experiences of children placed in public kinship care.13 The rest of this report is devoted to summarizing this body of research and identifying questions that remain unanswered.