Given the differing standards to which many public kinship caregivers are held by child welfare agencies, policy makers and child welfare experts alike have questioned the safety of these arrangements (Kusserow, 1992). Three types of concerns have been raised: that public kinship caregivers may themselves be abusive parents; that they may not prevent abusive birth parents from continuing to abuse their children; and that they may not have the knowledge or resources to provide a safe living environment.
Some child welfare experts have argued that many abusive and neglectful parents are themselves the product of maltreatment and that kinship care arrangements may perpetuate an intergenerational cycle of abuse. Indeed, studies of intergenerational abuse show that physical and sexual abuse can be passed down from one generation to the next (Johnson, 1994). However, it appears that most children in kinship care are placed there because of parental neglect rather than abuse (Gleeson et al., 1995; Grogan-Kaylor, 1996; Iglehart, 1994; Landsverk et al., 1996). Moreover, support for the theory of intergenerational abuse has been diminishing. Many child welfare experts stress an ecological model of child abuse, in which abusive behavior stems from a broad array of factors (Le Prohn, 1994). Only two studies have examined the abuse of children cared for by kin and non-kin foster parents. One found that children in public kinship care were less likely to be abused by their caregivers (Zuravin, Benedict, and Somerfield, 1993), while the other found the opposite (Dubowitz et al., 1993).
While contact with birth families is seen as an advantage of public kinship care, much of it is unsupervised and therefore raises questions about birth parents having inappropriate access to children they have abused or neglected (Barth et al., 1994; Berrick et al., 1994; Chipungu et al., 1998). In fact, one study found that only 43 percent of visits between children in public kinship care and their parents are prearranged, compared to 80 percent of visits between birth parents and non-kin foster children (Chipungu et al., 1998). Visits also occur more often in the kinship caregiver’s home rather than at the child welfare agency (Table 3). Child welfare workers report that they often have difficulty preventing unsupervised parental contact when children are placed with kin (Chipungu et al., 1998).
Table 3. Visits between Foster Children and Birth Parents
Source: Chipungu et al., 1998
Studies based on direct observation of public kinship care homes or reports by caregivers themselves show that these homes are generally as safe as non-kin foster homes (Berrick, 1997; Gaudin and Sutphen, 1993). However, because public kinship caregivers have lower incomes and less training than non-kin providers, on average, they often have fewer financial resources and are less likely to have the skills or materials needed to cope with emergency situations that might jeopardize children’s safety (Berrick, 1997; Gaudin and Sutphen, 1993). In addition, one study suggests that non-kin foster parents may be more knowledgeable about child development and appropriate expectations of children’s behavior, which may reduce the risk of inappropriate punishment (Berrick, 1997). One study found that public kinship caregivers were more likely than non-kin to leave children under age 13 without adult supervision (Geen and Clark, 1999). Nonetheless, children in public kinship care report feeling as “safe” and protected by their caregivers as children in non-kin foster care do (Wilson, 1996).