Kinship Care in America: What Outcomes Should Policy Seek?

Article excerpt

Based upon a study of kinship care policies in five states-New York, Colorado, Texas, California, and Illinois-this article proposes a conceptual framework for analyzing kinship care policy that uses five new permanency outcomes. After analyzing current policy within the framework, it concludes that, in formulating their own policies, states must separate a caregiver's need for support (money and services) from a child's need for supervision (casework oversight). This means establishing clear policies as to what constitutes a protective need in a kinship care case as opposed to a financial need. Given the number of children living with relatives in this country, about 1.4 million, or three times the current child welfare population in out-of-home care, states must proceed cautiously in altering their policies.

Until recently, information concerning how kinship placement policies have been formulated, promulgated, and implemented has been fragmentary. In her investigation of the system in New York City, for example, Thornton [1987] found considerable differences in permanency planning and goal setting between children in kinship care and children in traditional family foster care. Reunification and adoption outcomes were being pursued far less frequently for children in kinship care [Thornton 1987].

This article analyzes kinship care policy options and makes recommendations to states based upon a two-year national study undertaken at the University of Southern Maine's National Child Welfare Resource Center for Organizational Improvement. Supported by the U.S. Children's Bureau, the study compared kinship care policies in California, New York, Illinois, Colorado, and Texas, and examined how different kinship placement policies influence outcomes for children and affect the functioning of child welfare systems.1

The five states were selected for their diversity of both policies and child welfare practices. The differences encompassed certification, approval, and payment of relative requirements; state v. county administration; and trends in the number of children entering out-of-home care.

The data collection process included a review of information contained in statistical reports, legislation, policy directives, research reports, and program and policy papers. The study's major source of field data was testimony gleaned from interviews with key informants including policymakers, administrators, managers, caseworkers, juvenile court judges, advocates, technical experts, and relative caregivers themselves. In each state, interviews were conducted at three locations: the state headquarters of the child welfare agency and two local offices.

Background

Over the last decade, the increase in the nation's population in out-of-home care has been accompanied by an even faster increase in the number of children placed with relatives [Office of Inspector General 1992; Berrick et al. 1994; Wulczyn &Goerge 1992]. Several reasons are given for the preference of placing children who need care with relatives. Some argue that the ties of extended family members to relative children involve a special commitment and that there is reduced trauma to the child [Dubowitz et al.1993]. Others find evidence of a greater chance for contact between the parent and the child [Berrick et al.1994]. Still others point to the long tradition of families caring for kin, especially among African American families [Stack 1974]. For these reasons, the majority of states have explicit policies promoting kinship placement as the placement of choice [Office of the Inspector General 1992].

The dramatic growth in kinship care, both in absolute numbers and in the proportion of out-of-home care placements that involve kinship, has made it a major issue in child welfare policy. It is also increasingly clear that kinship placements must be thought about differently and treated differently than other placements [National Commission on Family Foster Care 1991; Meyer & Link 1990]. …