The Evolution of Kinship Care Policy and Practice

Article excerpt

SUMMARY

Kin caregivers can provide continuity and connectedness for children who cannot remain with their parents. This is one reason kinship care has become the preferred placement option for foster children. However, despite the growing reliance on kin caregivers, kinship care policies have evolved with little coherent guidance. This article examines kinship care and finds:

* Kinship foster parents tend to be older and have lower incomes, poorer health, and less education than non-kin foster parents. As a result, kin caregivers face more challenges as foster parents than non-kin caregivers.

* The links between payment and licensure, and the haphazard evolution of licensing policies and practices, complicate efforts to provide fair compensation for kin caregivers.

* Kinship caregivers receive less supervision and fewer services than non-kin caregivers, thus kin may not receive the support they need to nurture and protect the children in their care, even though their needs for support may be greater.

Kinship foster care questions many traditional notions about family obligation, governmental responsibility, and the nature of permanency for children in care. The article concludes by discussing these concerns, and calls for more thoughtful consideration of the uniqueness of kinship care in developing policies and best practices.

Historically, kin have often served as alternate or supplementary caregivers when birth parents were unable to care for their children. Surprisingly, however, when the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 passed, forming the basis of federal foster care policy, kin were very rarely formally designated as foster parents for related children. Today, child welfare agencies increasingly consider relatives as the first placement choice when foster care is needed and a relative is available to provide a safe home. Once considered an uncertain placement option, kinship care has become central to any discussion of how best to support and nurture children in foster care. The frequent references to kinship care throughout the articles in this journal issue underscore the centrality of kinship care in contemporary child welfare policy and practice (see the articles by Jones-Harden; Allen and Bissell; Stukes Chipungu and Bent-Goodley; and Testa in this journal issue). But kinship care is more than simply a placement option for children who must be removed from their parents' homes. Kinship care influences and is influenced by society's views of what constitutes safe and stable homes for foster children and whether or not kin should be compensated for this care. Moreover, despite the large number of foster children who are placed with kin, our understanding of the effects of kin care on long-term outcomes for children is limited. On the one hand, children placed with kin remain more connected to their birth parents, extended families, and communities than children in unrelated foster care. On the other hand, kinship care providers face a more challenging parenting environment than unrelated foster parents, and the impact of these challenges on child well-being, reunification possibilities, and securing permanency is largely unknown.

This article provides an in-depth analysis of kinship care. It begins by defining kinship care and discussing trends in the use of kinship care for foster children, as well as for children riving with kin without the involvement of child welfare agencies. Next, the characteristics of children in kinship foster care and their caregivers are discussed. Licensing policies and practices for kin are critical in determining whether kin caregivers will receive financial compensation and if so, how much. A full discussion of the complexity of licensure is presented, focusing on how licensing standards affect payment. The article concludes by examining federal and state kinship foster care policies and frontline kinship care practices and discussing the unresolved tensions and ongoing debates regarding the increasing reliance on kinship caregivers. …