Public kinship care appears to offer stable placements for children; however, if these placements are not considered acceptable permanent goals, they may impede other options for permanent placement. Children in public kinship care are less likely to be reunified with their parents (AFCARS, 1998; Berrick et al., 1995; Testa, 1997), but those who are reunified appear less likely than children in non-kin care to reenter foster care (Berrick et al., 1995; Courtney, 1995). Reunification may be complicated by a child welfare worker’s view that placing a child back in a parent’s home is less urgent in kinship placements, because the child is already in a stable, potentially permanent home (Gleeson and Bonecutter, 1994). As noted above, parents may not actively seek reunification since the child may receive greater financial assistance by living with a relative.
Two small-scale studies suggest that children in kinship care are less likely to be adopted by their foster parents (Berrick et al., 1995; Berrick and Needell, in press). Some experts argue that adoption may not be an acceptable permanency goal for all kinship care families, because although most kinship caregivers express a willingness to care for the child until adulthood, many are reluctant to adopt the child (McLean and Thomas, 1996). Adoption is often perceived as unnecessary, both by private and by public kinship care families, since the child and the caregiver are already members of the same family. Moreover, adopting the child would mean terminating the rights of the biological parents. Some kinship caregivers fear that adoption would disturb the biological family structure and cause conflict with the child’s parents (Berrick et al., 1994; McLean and Thomas, 1996; Thornton, 1991). Caregivers may also hope that the biological parent will someday be able to resume parenting responsibilities—and adoption would require them to give up hope on the child’s parent, who is often the caregiver’s son, daughter, sister, or brother (McLean and Thomas, 1996, Testa et al., 1996). Further, both the birth parent and the caregiver may feel that the parent still plays an important role in the child’s life and that the parent-child relationship should not be legally terminated (Takas, 1993). Finally, if a child is not eligible for an adoption assistance payment, adoption may reduce the amount of financial assistance the kin caregiver receives.
For such reasons, child welfare workers have commonly assumed that kin caregivers are unwilling to adopt the children in their care. Some studies of child welfare workers indicate that the majority of them agree that many kinship caregivers believe adoption is unnecessary because family ties already exist or because they feel it would cause conflict in their relationship with the child’s birth parents (Beeman, 1996; Chipungu et al., 1998, Thornton, 1991). Yet, one study found that caseworkers considered adoption to be appropriate for most children in kinship care and that most relatives were willing to consider it (Gleeson et al., 1997).
Research on other issues surrounding adoption yields equally conflicting results. One study found that the majority of kinship caregivers were unwilling to adopt, even though they were aware that they would be eligible to receive an adoption subsidy (Thornton, 1991). Other studies showed that when relatives are provided with complete information about adoption, including the legal and financial advantages, the majority are willing to consider adoption (Beeman et al., 1996; Testa et al., 1996; Zimmerman et al., 1998). Among those kinship caregivers who were willing to adopt, few were recommended for adoption by caseworkers and only half reported that caseworkers had ever spoken to them about adoption (Testa et al., 1996). These findings argue that the slower rate of adoption among children in kinship care “may be related to the beliefs and procedures of caseworkers and the options they present to kinship foster parents regarding permanent placement for the children” (Zimmerman, 1998).
Many states use subsidized guardianship as a permanent living arrangement for children in public kinship care. Guardianship enables kin to assume long-term care of the child without severing the parent-child relationship (Takas, 1993): “Building on the responsiveness of extended family networks, the concept of legal guardianship… offers the potential to stabilize the lives of these children by appointing the available grandparents, aunts, uncles, or other relatives as permanent guardians, not just informal caregivers” (Williams, 1994). However, guardianship does not provide the same protections against later, unexpected changes in custody that adoption does and may be seen as less than a total commitment to permanency (Takas, 1993).
Approximately 25 States have policies related to subsidized guardianship, in which children leave the foster care system when a public kinship caregiver assumes guardianship of them (ACYF, 1994). Subsidized guardianship provides a stipend that is sometimes equal to a foster care payment. Because the rights of the child’s biological parents do not have to be terminated, most guardianship programs require less court involvement and usually less child welfare agency supervision. The benefits include reduced casework and administrative costs, less time before a permanent home is established, and the provision of financial support with only limited intrusion into the family by the child welfare system. Subsidized guardianship is not widely used in many States because, unlike foster care maintenance payments and adoption subsidies, guardianship payments are not eligible for Federal reimbursement (Welty, 1997). In addition, some experts have argued that guardianship may not provide a permanent placement for children because such agreements can be easily dissolved. HHS has issued title IV-E waivers to six States (California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, and North Carolina) to test the effectiveness of subsidized guardianship programs for kinship care families.