Public kinship care increased significantly in the 1980s and 1990s and now represents a significant portion of the nation's children in foster care. Kinship care, both public and private, appears to be very different from non-kin foster care, and States have developed policies to address the specific needs and circumstances of public kinship caregivers. In addition, child welfare workers appear to treat kinship care families differently than they do non-kin foster families. This may not be surprising, since the characteristics of kinship care families are significantly different from those of non-kin foster families. Finally, the experiences of children in public kinship care appear to be different from those of children in non-kin foster care.
- The extent to which children in foster care are placed with relatives. In 1998, approximately 2.13 million children in the United States (or just under 3 percent) were living in kinship care. While data are limited, it appears that in 1997, approximately 200,000 children, or 29 percent of all foster children, were in public kinship care. Available evidence suggests that public kinship care has increased substantially during the late 1980s and 1990s.
- State child welfare policies. As States began to use kin as foster parents, they developed varying policies for how to treat them. As a result, kin involved with the child welfare system are generally defined, licensed, supervised, and paid differently from non-kin caregivers. Specifically, 19 States broadly define kin to include godparents, neighbors, or other persons who have a bond with the child. Almost all States give preference to kin over non-kin in deciding where to place a foster child. In addition, 41 States waive standards or have less stringent requirements for kin who serve as foster parents, and 22 of these States pay kin the foster care rate. Finally, most State policies indicate that custodial kinship care (care of children in State custody) is supervised as rigorously as non-kin foster care.
- Characteristics of kinship caregivers. Kinship caregivers usually receive little, if any, advance preparation for their role. Agency-involved and private kinship caregivers are often constrained by limited decision-making authority. Both public and private caregivers are older, more likely to be single, and more likely to be African American. Public kinship caregivers are also more likely never to have married, to be the only adult in the household, and to take care of fewer children. Kinship caregivers' homes are more likely to be in central cities, largely because African Americans are concentrated in these areas. Both public and private kinship caregivers are likely to have less education and lower incomes than non-kin caregivers and are more likely to receive public benefits. Public kinship caregivers are less likely to report being in good health and are more likely to experience economic hardship.
- Characteristics of children in kinship care. Children in private kinship care are older than children in non-kin foster care, and children in public kinship care are younger than children in non-kin care. Children in public kinship care are much more likely to be African American, to enter the child welfare system because of abuse or neglect rather than other family problems, and to come from homes in which the parent had a drug or alcohol problem. However, children in public kinship care appear to have fewer health, mental health, educational, and behavioral problems than children in non-kin foster care.
- Caseworkers' practices. Compared to non-kin foster parents, public kinship caregivers have less interaction with caseworkers and receive less supervision and information about their responsibilities and the role of the child welfare agency. Public kinship caregivers and children receive fewer services, though it is uncertain whether this reflects differences in needs, knowledge about, or access to such services. Birth parents of public kinship care and non-kin foster children receive similar services.
- Experiences in care. Public kinship care allows children to maintain a greater sense of family continuity. Given the limited research available, it is not possible to assess whether concerns regarding increased risk to children in public kinship care are warranted. Children placed in kinship care remain in care longer and are much less likely to move from foster home to foster home than non-kin foster children. However, children in kinship care are less likely to be reunified with their birth parents. There is virtually no information on the long-term effects of kinship care on children's well-being.