While both public kinship and non-kin foster parents care for children whom the state may need to protect, the circumstances leading to placement appear to be different. For example, children in public kinship care are more likely to have been removed from a parent’s home because of abuse or neglect, as opposed to parent-child conflict or a behavioral problem (Cook and Ciarico, 1998). Several small-scale studies have found that children in public kinship care are more likely to have been removed because of neglect (Gleeson et al., 1995; Grogan-Kaylor, 1996; Iglehart, 1994; Landsverk et al., 1996). Unlike non-kin foster children, many children in kinship care have lived with the relatives caring for them prior to the child welfare system’s involvement.
In comparing the birth parents (or prior caregivers) of children in foster care, it appears that children in public kinship care are more likely to come from homes in which the birth parents had a drug or alcohol problem (AFCARS, 1998; Altshuler, 1998; Beeman et al., 1996; Benedict et al., 1996; Cook and Ciarico, 1998; Gleeson et al., 1996; Gleeson et al., 1997). In addition, the birth parents of public kinship care children are more likely to be young (Cook and Ciarico, 1998) and never married than the birth parents of children in non-kin foster care (Altshuler, 1998; Cook and Ciarico, 1998).
Unlike non-kin foster parents, kinship caregivers usually receive little, if any, advance preparation for their role.
In all States, non-kin foster parents are required to complete a rigorous training program before the State will license them. Such training helps future foster parents understand the needs of abused or neglected children and emphasizes strategies for meeting these needs effectively. Non-kin foster parents also have time to prepare mentally for their new roles and to adjust their living space to make it appropriate for children of a particular age.
In sharp contrast, kinship caregivers often become involved in a crisis situation with little or no notice. Not being prepared for the arrival of children, they may not have adequate space, furniture (such as a crib), or other child-related necessities (for example, toys or a car seat). Most kinship caregivers are grandparents who have not had parenting duties for some time and who may be apprehensive about raising a child at this stage in their lives. If they have become involved due to the abuse or neglect of a child, they may be forced to acknowledge the problems of the child they raised and may question their own parenting skills. Unlike trained non-kin foster parents, kinship caregivers often receive little formal training and may have a limited understanding of the child welfare system, what is expected of them, and the resources available to assist them. Kinship caregivers, however, generally have greater knowledge of the family history and dynamics that have created the need for a child to be placed outside the home.
In private kinship care arrangements, as well as agency-involved public care, birth parents typically retain custody of their children, often affording kinship caregivers more limited decision-making authority than non-kin foster parents. Without legal custody, kin lack the authority to take important actions such as enrolling a child in school, signing permission slips for field trips or other school activities, authorizing emergency medical care, or enrolling the child in their health insurance policy. In addition, many kinship caregivers are retired and on Medicare, so the only health insurance option they have is to buy an individual policy for the child, which can be prohibitively expensive. As noted in Chapter 1, private kinship caregivers are unable to get foster care payments, and although they may be eligible to receive some welfare benefits, the amount is significantly lower. Moreover, studies have shown that welfare workers have often incorrectly denied benefits to kinship caregivers because they did not understand eligibility rules (Chalfie, 1994; Hornby et al., 1995). Private kinship caregivers may also be denied access to public housing or other public benefits that impose strict family definitions on recipients.