While the extended family has often taken in children whose parents are unable to care for them, the emerging use of relatives as providers of foster care in the public child welfare system is a new and important phenomenon, and one which has grown quickly. Nationally, relatives are now caring for approximately one third of children in foster care, although there is a wide variation locally. The Advisory Panel on Kinship Care has helped the leadership and staff of the Department of Health and Human Services to consider the implications of kinship foster care for its policies and programs and to understand the needs of the child welfare field as State and local agencies seek to provide the best service possible to vulnerable children.
The cornerstone of the child welfare field is the strong recognition that decisions regarding children’s best interests must be made on a case-by-case basis founded on a full assessment of the family’s needs. Kinship care must be considered in this light. We believe strongly that the principles articulated above can guide child welfare agencies and caseworkers in their decisions about relatives’ roles in individual cases. In short, these are: (1) the child welfare system must continue its focus on safety, permanency and child well-being; (2) decisions regarding relatives’ roles should be based on the child’s best interests; (3) kinship care within the child welfare system must not displace voluntary family efforts or income assistance programs; and (4) relatives should be viewed as potential resources in permanency planning.
While we have learned a great deal about kinship foster care and its relationship to extended family care more generally through the research review and through the Advisory Panel’s discussion, significant gaps remain in our understanding of how relatives’ roles as foster parents affect outcomes for children. Additional information should be available in the next few years regarding the effects of subsidized guardianship programs and other emerging concepts in child welfare policy related to relatives’ roles. Until we better understand the implications for children of these innovations, the Department believes it is premature to make major policy changes regarding Federal child welfare funding streams. However, as new information becomes available, we will reassess whether additional actions or activities, including regulatory and/or legislative change, could be helpful in assuring relatives can be engaged to their maximum potential in achieving safety, permanency and well-being for children in the child welfare system.