Extended family members often provide crucial support for children during parental crises. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives routinely step in to care for children when parents cannot. Usually these are informal custody arrangements handled privately among family members. Occasionally, legal custody of children is transferred to a relative through the courts. Only in the past decade or so, however, have relatives been used extensively as licensed foster parents by State and county child protection agencies. It is this practice, commonly referred to as “kinship foster care” that is the subject of this report. Best estimates, derived from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), indicate that approximately one-third of the 550,000 children in foster care nationally were being cared for by relatives in 1998. State and local practices in this area vary widely, however, and the proportion of foster parents who are relatives of the children they care for ranges from almost none in some States to nearly half in others. In addition to differences in numbers, States and communities differ significantly in their myriad day-to-day practices with respect to kinship foster families. These include practices regarding assessment and supervision of kinship foster care placements, the extent to which financial support for the child is provided at the same rates as for non-kin foster families, and the range of services available to related foster parents as compared with non-relative foster parents.
Although relatives have long been a resource for abused and neglected children, the practice of licensing them as foster parents has grown quickly in some parts of the nation. The increased use of relative foster care is usually based on the idea that when relatives can keep children safe from abuse and neglect, such placements are less traumatic for children because the children remain with people familiar to them. Almost all States (49) give preferences to relatives when placing a child in out-of-home care. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), which enacted welfare reform at the federal level, requires that States “consider giving preference to an adult relative over a non-related caregiver when determining a placement for a child, provided that the relative meets all relevant State child protection standards.” Guidance to States has interpreted this provision as requiring States to consider such a preference in each case where a child is placed in foster care. In practice, most States were already giving preference to relatives prior to welfare reform. The Adoption and Safe Families Act allows States to exempt children in foster care with relatives from the requirement for filing a termination of parental rights petition once the child has been in foster care fifteen of the previous twenty-two months.
While the practice of using relatives as foster parents has grown rapidly, the implications of this change for children, families, and the service systems charged with keeping children safe have not been fully explored. Kinship foster care has advantages in some situations, but some observers are concerned that in other cases it may also have significant drawbacks for both children and the agencies that serve them. Concerns focus on:
- whether extended family systems may suffer from the same problematic behavior patterns that initially placed the child in danger;
- the growth in the number of children in foster care, which may relate to the growing number of children in kinship foster care;
- the fact that children in kinship care have significantly longer lengths of stay in foster care which may indicate delays in achieving permanency;
- the fact that costs have risen significantly as a result of longer lengths of stay in kinship foster homes;
- and finally, concerns have also been expressed that kinship care threatens the legitimacy of the child welfare system’s child protection mission. This mission would be undermined if kinship foster care causes the child welfare system to become, in fact or perception, a system of income support for families rather than a system of intervention to protect children endangered by abuse or neglect.
There is extensive data in some of the areas for which Congress requested information. For instance, a great deal is known about the characteristics of kinship care providers, who tend to be older, have less education, and have lower incomes than non-kin foster parents. Less information is available on some of the other topics Congress is concerned about, and information about spending and costs of kinship care on a State-by-State basis is especially scarce.
Research shows that kinship foster care now represents a significant portion of the nation’s child welfare caseload. Kinship care arrangements, both public and private, appear to be quite different from non-kin foster care. Kinship care providers have little advance preparation for their roles, and both the caregivers’ and the children’s characteristics differ from non-kin foster parents and children. In addition, child welfare caseworkers appear to treat kinship care families differently than they do non-kin foster families. Kinship foster care arrangements generally receive less supervision from and have less interaction with caseworkers and children receive fewer services.
Finally, the experiences of children in kinship foster care appear to be different from those of children in non-kin foster care. Children placed in kinship care remain in care longer than non-kin foster children but experience fewer moves between foster homes. The research review which accompanies this document summarizes in detail the available research, evaluation and data on these subjects.
The Department recognized from the outset that consensus regarding recommendations would be unlikely. Indeed, the Advisory Panel did not fully agree on the appropriate role of kinship care within the child welfare system or on whether or how the Federal government should address kinship care in the context of its child welfare programs. There was, however, considerable common ground among members of the Advisory Panel on principles to be followed in any consideration of policy. Members also broadly agreed with the identification of key issues facing the child welfare field with regard to kinship foster care. The discussion that follows represents the Department’s conclusions, based on a full airing of the range of opinions and an analysis of available research to date on the phenomenon of kinship foster care and the role of grandparents and other relatives raising children who are in need of protective intervention.
The work the Department has undertaken in identifying and working with the Advisory Panel and analyzing the panel’s discussions created a focused process through which to explore a very complex phenomenon. We come away from these activities with a better understanding of the complexities of the issues faced by children, families, and agencies when children are in need of protection and relatives and the public child welfare systems seek to meet their needs. It is clear that while we know a significant amount about kinship caregiving arrangements, there remain many areas where our knowledge is still quite limited, especially with respect to the actual policies and practices in individual States and localities. We do know these policies and practices vary widely, and yet the issues faced by families and child welfare agencies across the nation with regard to kinship foster care have many similarities.