Since many public kinship caregivers are not eligible to receive federal funds,19 many States have created less stringent licensing options for them. Further, the licensing of a kinship caregiver as a foster parent can be a function of both State policies as well as the family’s preference for licensing and payment. Figure 2 defines five licensing categories that States use for public kinship care providers.20 The most salient distinction between public kinship caregivers is whether the children they care for are in State custody or not. Custodial kinship care refers to public kinship care of children who are in the custody of the State child welfare system, and non-custodial kinship care encompasses care of children who are not in State custody but are somehow involved with or known to the child welfare agency.
Figure 2. State Licensing Standards for Public Kinship Care
Fully Licensed: All States have standards for licensing non-kin foster care. The Supreme Court has determined that States are obligated to make the same foster care maintenance payments to kin as they make to non-kin foster parents caring for title IV-E eligible children, and States are entitled to Federal reimbursement for a portion of those payments. Therefore, several States have a number of kinship placements within their regular foster care population.
Modified: Some States maintain their non-kin foster care licensing standards for kin but modify one or more of them on a case-by-case basis as long as none of the modifications jeopardizes safety. This category of standards differs from approved kinship care because the State does not have a separate approval process for kin.
Approved: Some States have a formal system for allowing kin to care for a child without meeting several of the criteria established for a non-kin foster family. The families may not be required to attend training, comply with space or income requirements, or follow a vast array of other mandates. In these systems, standards for kin are lower or less exacting than those for non-kin foster parents.
Assisted: Some child welfare agencies allow relatives to care for children without a formal licensing or approval process. These families are not unapproved, since the children are still in State custody and the child welfare agency is ultimately responsible for their safety, but they are subject to only minimal requirements and possibly minimal supervision.
Agency-Involved: In many States, there are children who are “involved with” or “known to” the child welfare system but who have not been taken into custody. States may include some of these children in their official child welfare system—meaning that they are considered open cases within the agency.
The four categories of custodial kinship care are not mutually exclusive; in fact, States often have multiple licensing or approval standards for kinship homes. Families not meeting the standards for one type of licensing may receive approval under different criteria. Likewise, families concerned by the degree of government intrusion and regulation associated with one type of licensing can often seek approval through another type. Most States allow kin into licensed foster care programs designed for non-kin foster parents (fully licensed). Only three States (California, Oregon, and New Jersey) prohibit this type of licensing (and the financial and other support that comes with it) for families caring for non-IV-E-eligible children.21 In 10 States, this is the only option kin have for becoming foster parents. The remaining States provide at least one alternative licensing standard for kin: 10 modify one or more of the standards they require of non-kin (modified); 17 States and the District of Columbia have a different, yet formal, assessment process for kin (approved); and 23 States and the District of Columbia allow kin to care for children in State custody with minimal safety checks but without a formal licensing or approval process (assisted). Ten States and the District of Columbia provide two alternative licensing standards for kin (Boots and Geen, 1998).
Figure 3. The Kinship Care Continuum
Foster care standards are designed to ensure that foster children receive quality care. In creating different standards or making exceptions for kin, States balance the benefits to children of maintaining family ties with the risk that such exceptions or different standards will lead to a lower quality of care. While States want to ensure that children are safe, if standards are too strict, many kin who could provide a safe environment might be unable to meet State requirements.