Kinship Care: From Last Resort to First Choice

Article excerpt

Kinship care is becoming the first choice in a continuum of services available to children requiring out-of-home care. This article highlights the key issues in kinship care and discusses them as they relate to agency structure for kinship family support in the public child welfare system. Implications for policy and practice are explored.

Kinship care is not a new phenomenon. The use of relatives as caregivers has been a time-honored tradition in .many cultures. Hegar and Scannapieco [1995] offer a historical context for kinship care, noting that the voluntary fostering of children in relatives' homes is a tradition found from medieval Europe to twentieth-century Africa. Whatever the cultural or ethnic group, family ties have an inherently significant role in the physical and emotional growth and development of children.

Although kinship care's historical roots as an informal practice are deep, its use as a child welfare service is relatively new and brings to the forefront issues that were not present in the informal family arrangements that existed in past years.

The Formalization of Kinship Care

The formalization of kinship care within the child welfare system can be attributed to several factors. First, the number of children entering out-of-home care has increased over the past 10 to 12 years. In 1982, 243,000 children were placed in out-ofhome care; by 1992, the number of placements totaled 429,000 [Dubowitz 1994; Gleeson & Craig 1994]. Second, during that same time the quantity of nonrelative family foster homes decreased. According to the U. S. General Accounting Office, the shortage of nonrelative family foster homes may, in part, be attributed to the poor public image of family foster care, the increased participation of women in the labor force, low foster care reimbursement rates, and inadequate support services [Spar 1993]. A third factor contributing to the formalization of kinship care has been the growing recognition of the benefits of family care and the stabilizing effect extended family can have on placement. In fact, some authors maintain that the growth in kinship care arrangements can be attributed, in part, to society's commitment to the extended family as a significant source of strength and stability [Berrick et al. 1994; Hegar & Scannapieco 1995].

Children who are placed in kinship homes are in out-ofhome care for many of the same reasons that have led to the increase in the number of children entering other forms of care. Many parents are unable to care appropriately for their children due to the effects of parental substance abuse. Other societal factors include increases in homelessness, poverty, and the incidence of HIV/AIDS. Such conditions also influence the number of child abuse and neglect reports.

Kinship Care as a Resource

Kinship care as a resource for children and families cannot be discussed without considering why it was not incorporated into planning for children as a regular matter early on. Kinship carethe use of relatives as an alternative to placement of a child with an unknown family-is a natural bridge for children [Child Welfare League of America 1994]. It provides continuity, lessens the trauma of separation, preserves family ties, and offers growth and development within the context of a child's culture and community.

One significant explanation for the past hesitancy of child welfare agencies to use relatives as a placement resource was the concept of the intergenerational cycle of child maltreatment. Studies have suggested that the dynamics of physical and sexual abuse continue from one generation to another, thereby creating intergenerational patterns of behavior. The intergenerational cycle concept reflects the belief that parents who maltreat their children were often victims, as children, of similar treatment at the hands of their own parents [Johnson 1994]. Such a belief affects how relatives are viewed as caregivers, especially with respect to the protection of children, and questions the wisdom of using relatives who had influence over the abusive or neglectful parents. …