Issue: How does kinship foster care fit into permanency planning efforts and under what circumstances should children remain in long-term foster care placements with relatives?
Discussion: When a child’s foster care placement is with a relative, the caseworker or agency may feel less urgency to pursue a more permanent living arrangement with the child and family. Because the child remains with the extended family, there may be less pressure to resolve the situation permanently and discharge the child from State custody. Yet, unless the child feels like he or she is permanently settled and has a place to truly call “home,” placement with relatives may be as precarious and emotionally tenuous as any other foster care situation. The Adoption and Safe Families Act may affect permanency decisions for children in kinship placements because it allows, at State option, exceptions to the requirement for filing termination of parental rights (TPR) petitions on behalf of children who have resided in foster care 15 of the previous 22 months if those children are living with relatives. While case plans and a permanency hearing are still required, concerns have been expressed that TPR filing exceptions will make it seem somehow less urgent that such plans will be acted upon promptly. An additional level of complexity in kinship foster care situations, whatever the permanency plan for the child, is managing the emotional stress of the relationships among the child(ren), the relative caretaker(s) and the birth parent(s).
HHS Position: The Department agrees with the Advisory Panel that kinship care should be considered in the context of the regular continuum of permanency options within the child welfare system. Kinship care can be a resource at many points along the continuum – from temporary, emergency care to serving as the permanent home for a child. Relative care may be an especially valuable tool for sibling groups for whom placement together may be more possible with relatives. Issues related to the legal status of such arrangements are especially challenging because family law is determined by State governments and the Federal government’s role is limited. In addition, because we have little information about the long-term stability of guardianship arrangements in comparison to other permanency options, it is difficult to articulate how permanent we can expect such arrangements to be. These issues may also play out differently among various cultural groups.
The Department believes that the timelines for permanency for children in kinship care arrangements should be the same as for other children in foster care. Termination of parental rights may not be desirable or necessary in every case, but permanency plans must be established and implemented promptly in order to assure that all children have, rapidly and in keeping with their developmental needs, a permanent family to call their own and within which they feel safe and loved.
The Department agrees with a number of panelists who voiced a need for concurrent planning for children in kinship care as well as for those in other foster care placements. Concurrent permanency planning is an alternative to the traditional sequential case planning process. In concurrent planning, at the same time that services are being provided to achieve family reunification, alternative permanency options are also being explored in the event that the child cannot be safely returned to the biological parent(s). Concurrent planning is quite demanding on the skills of caseworkers who face considerable complexity in managing relationships between and among the birth parents and relatives as concurrent plans are established and implemented. Where permanence may not be possible with a relative who can temporarily care for a child, it is important for caseworkers to understand and articulate to the relative caregiver from the beginning that permanency is the goal.
Research is needed in this area to help guide decision makers, including child welfare staff and family court judges, in the development and implementation of permanency plans in kinship care settings. There is some early information from demonstration States, for example, that relatives may be much more likely to adopt children than was initially expected. If relatives are not willing to commit to a permanent placement, either through adoption or permanent guardianship, then alternative permanent placement options for a child must be identified.
The Department agrees with members of the Advisory Panel that permanency should be considered from the viewpoint of the child as much as possible, with the end result that the child feels that the placement is permanent. In considering cases of potential legal guardianship for children in the child welfare system, at a minimum, decision-makers should try to assess the child’s sense of permanence. We do believe that adoption remains the best option if the biological parent(s) cannot resume custody of the child. HHS understands the need to use its research and technical assistance resources to better understand relative care and to promote timely permanency planning for these children.