The extended family has long played a role in caring for children whose parents were unable to do so—a practice commonly referred to as kinship care. Over the last decade, child welfare agencies have increasingly relied on extended family members to act as foster parents for children who have been abused or neglected, yet very little information is available on the extent to which kin serve as foster parents and how this practice varies across States. In addition, it has been difficult for Federal and State policy makers, as well as advocates and practitioners, to evaluate how well kinship care ensures children’s safety, promotes permanency in their living situations, and enhances their well-being—three basic goals of the child welfare system. Nonetheless, both Federal and State governments continue to implement kinship care policies—both explicitly and implicitly.
Recognizing the need for more information on the policy implications of using kin as foster parents, Congress directed the Department of Health and Human Services, in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) (P.L. 105-89), to “convene [an] advisory panel. . . and prepare and submit to the advisory panel an initial report on the extent to which children in foster care are placed in the care of a relative.” This Report to Congress on Kinship Foster Care summarizes current knowledge about kinship care, including all available data on the specific issues raised by Congress in ASFA:
- the extent to which children in foster care are placed with relatives,
- costs and sources of funds for kinship care,
- State policies regarding kinship care,
- characteristics of kinship caregivers and their households,
- conditions under which children enter kinship care,
- services provided to kinship caregivers and to birth parents,
- birth parents’ access to their children in kinship care, and
- permanency plans for children in kinship care.
In its broadest sense, kinship care is any living arrangement in which a relative or someone else emotionally close to the child takes primary responsibility for rearing a child. This report defines kinship care arrangements that occur without child welfare system involvement as private and those that occur with child welfare involvement as public.2 Traditional foster care arrangements are referred to as non-kin foster care.
This report expands upon Congress’ request for information on public kinship care in two significant ways. First, it provides information on private kinship care, when available, because policy changes regarding public kinship care are likely to affect private care. Second, to provide a deeper understanding of kinship care, it compares the policies covering public kinship and non-kin foster care and describes the characteristics and experiences of families in each group.
THE EVOLUTION OF KINSHIP CARE
Two Federal policy agencies—income assistance and child welfare—govern kinship care. Each has a different view of the role of relatives in caring for children. Income assistance policy—namely, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC)—treated certain relatives as an extension of the family and allowed them to include the children in their care in applications for income assistance, whether for family or child-only grants. However, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 ended the entitlement to income assistance for all AFDC recipients, including relatives, through the creation of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. The law also imposed new work requirements and time limits on TANF recipients, including some kinship caregivers. A State can choose to exempt kinship caregivers from individual work requirements, but these caregivers, if receiving assistance on their own behalf, must be included in the State’s overall work participation rate. This rate determines whether the State is subject to a penalty and a reduced TANF grant.
In contrast, Federal child welfare policy historically overlooked the role of kinship caregivers and if States provided assistance to kin they did so through income assistance programs, effectively keeping them out of the child welfare system. As States began to rely on relatives to serve as foster parents, they often applied existing Federal foster care licensing, supervision, and permanency planning requirements— designed for non-kin foster parents—to kin caregivers. More recent Federal policies have acknowledged the unique circumstances of kinship care and have encouraged States to consider giving preference to relatives when placing a child in foster care.
While the information in this report is the best available, generalizations and comparisons across States are problematic, for a number of reasons: differences in State policies and practices, differences in the types of kinship care cases included in State data, lack of representative data, inconsistent comparison groups, and possible correlations between kinship care and other, unmeasured variables. In addition, there is insufficient information available to assess the effects of kinship care, especially on abused and neglected children and on providers. The reader should therefore be cautious in interpreting the findings presented below by issue.
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 some type of kinship care arrangement. In 1997, approximately 200,000 children were in public kinship care, well below 1 percent of all U.S. children but 29 percent of all foster children. Available evidence suggests that public kinship care has increased substantially during the late 1980s and 1990s (see Chapter 1).
Three main factors have contributed to this growth. First, the number of non-kin foster parents has not kept pace with the number of children requiring placement, creating a greater demand for foster caregivers. Second, child welfare agencies have developed a more positive attitude toward the use of kin as foster parents. Today, extended family members are usually given first priority when children require placement. Third, a number of Federal and State court rulings have recognized the rights of relatives to act as foster parents and to be compensated financially for doing so.
Costs and Sources of Funds for Kinship Care
Insufficient data are available to assess accurately the costs and funding sources of public kinship care. It is possible to document State policies for financing kinship care but not, for example, how many families actually receive foster care payments, TANF grants, or other public assistance (see Chapter 2). Public and private kinship caregivers are much more likely than non-kin foster parents to receive public benefits because of their own economic status (Chapter 3); however, public kinship caregivers are less likely than non-kin foster parents to receive services from child welfare agencies (Chapter 4).
State Policies Regarding Kinship Care
With limited Federal guidance, States’ child welfare policies have developed in a manner that treats public kinship care differently from non-kin foster care (see Chapter 2). Almost all States (48 and the District of Columbia) give preference to relatives when placing a child with someone other than his or her parents, and most have been doing so for more than five years. In addition, many States (19 and the District of Columbia) have a broad definition of kin and include persons with emotional ties to the child, such as godparents, neighbors, and family friends. All but three States allow kin into licensed foster care programs designed for non-kin and provide foster payments to those who meet program standards. In addition, 41 States and the District of Columbia have at least one alternative foster care licensing standard for kin, and 22 States and the District of Columbia provide foster payments to kin meeting such standards. The remaining States support public kinship providers with TANF or other payments that are generally lower than foster care payments.
Characteristics of Kinship Caregivers and Their Households
Kinship care families differ from non-kin foster families in several ways (see Chapter 3). Kinship caregivers usually receive little, if any, preparation for their new role. Public and private kinship providers are older, more likely to be single, more likely to be African American, and more likely to have less education and lower incomes. They are more likely to receive public benefits. Public kinship providers are less likely to report being in good health.
Children in private kinship care appear to be older than children in non-kin foster care, while children in public kinship care appear to be younger. Children in public kinship care are much more likely to be African American and appear to have fewer physical and mental health problems than children in non-kin foster care.
Conditions under Which Children Enter Kinship Care
The circumstances leading to placement in a foster home appear to be somewhat different for children in public kinship than for those in non-kin care. Children in public kinship care are more likely to have been removed from their parents’ homes because of abuse or neglect and are less likely to have been placed in foster care because of a behavioral problem or conflict with a parent (Chapter 3). The parents of children in public kinship care are more likely to have a drug or alcohol problem and are more likely to be young and never married.
Services Provided to Kinship Caregivers and to Birth Parents
Child welfare caseworkers appear to provide less supervision and monitoring and fewer services to public kinship caregivers and children than to non-kin foster families (Chapter 4). Moreover, public kinship caregivers request and receive fewer services for themselves and for the children in their care. Overall, birth parents of children in public kinship care are offered and receive similar services as birth parents of children in nonkin foster care. Few studies have examined whether the needs of public kinship caregivers, the children in such care, or the birth parents of these children differ from those in non-kin care.
Birth Parents’ Access to Their Children in Kinship Care
Children in public kinship care maintain closer ties with their birth parents and their siblings than do children in non-kin foster care (Chapter 4). Research shows that birth parents and siblings visit children in public kinship care more frequently than children placed with non-kin foster parents. Birth parents also appear to be more likely to call, write, or give gifts to their children in public kinship care. Some experts have raised concerns about the safety of such children, especially because parental visits are often unsupervised, in contrast to parental visits to children in non-kin foster care. However, there is insufficient information to determine whether the concerns are warranted.
Permanency Plans for Children in Kinship Care
The most common goal of child welfare agencies for children in both kinship and nonkin foster care is permanent reunification with their birth families. However, some data suggest that permanency plans for children in public kinship care are more likely than those for children in non-kin foster care to have reunification as their goal, while other data suggest the opposite (Chapter 4). Plans for children in kinship care are less likely to include adoption and more likely to include placement with a relative as their goal. In addition, outcomes for children in public kinship care appear to be different from those of non-kin foster children. Children in public kinship care are less likely to have multiple placements, tend to remain in out-of-home placement longer, and are less likely to be reunified with their parents.
Despite the widespread use of kin as foster parents, many questions and concerns remain regarding this practice. States have been struggling to determine how to use kin most effectively, including how and to what extent they should treat public kinship care arrangements differently from non-kin foster care placements. Moreover, State child welfare officials and other experts have questioned whether existing Federal policies, developed almost entirely with non-kin foster care in mind, are appropriate for kinship arrangements.