This article reports on a survey of 261 urban, metropolitan, and rural child welfare professionals regarding their perceptions of kinship foster care. Most professionals had generally positive perceptions of kinship foster parents' motivations and competence, and of kinship foster care. Participants also believed that kinship placements were more difficult to supervise than nonkin placements, and that agencies needed to make changes in practice and policy to accommodate kin. Differences in perceptions by race of the child welfare professionals are included.
Kinship foster care-the formal placement of children into the care of relatives or others with close familial ties by the state or county child protection agency-is a rapidly growing form of out-of-home placement for children. In most states, kinship foster care is the preferred option for out-of-home placement [Gleeson & Craig 1994]; according to one national survey, the percentage of children placed in kinship foster care grew from 18% in 1986 to 31% in 1990 [Kusserow 1992]. Kinship foster care's growth is due to multiple factors: the increasing number of children in placement, the declining number of available nonkin foster families, and the growing acknowledgment of kin as a resource [Child Welfare League of America 1994]. Kinship foster care brings both new possibilities and new challenges to child welfare professionals, yet little is known about child welfare professionals' perceptions and attitudes about kinship foster care and the families it serves. Do child welfare professionals support the placement of children with kin? Do they view kinship foster care differently than nonkinship foster care? This article reports on the results of a survey of child welfare professionals in Minnesota regarding their attitudes toward kinship foster care.
Although research on kinship foster care has increased over the past several years, most studies have focused on the characteristics of children in kinship foster care, including their health and mental health needs [Dubowitz et al. 1992, 1993, 1994; Inglehart 1994; Landsverk et al.1996], on the characteristics of kinship foster parents [Berrick et al.1994; Dubowitz et al.1993,1994; LeProhn & Pecora 1994; Thornton 1987], and on the outcomes for children in kinship foster care [Link 1996; Benedict et al.1996]. Other publications have proposed practice models for kinship foster care [Ingram 1996; Scannapieco & Hegar 1996; Jackson 1996; Mills & Usher 1996]. Missing from the literature, however, is research describing child welfare professionals' views of kinship foster care. Although some have speculated that child welfare professionals and child welfare agencies are reluctant to fully support kinship foster care [Goerge et al.1994; Gray & Nybell 1990; Laird 1979; Meyer & Link 1990; Johnson 1994], few studies have collected data directly from workers. A review of the literature uncovered only two studies that focused on the perceptions and attitudes of child welfare professionals toward kinship foster care [Thornton 1987; Berrick et al. 1995]. Yet the experiences and perceptions of child welfare professionals are important in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of current social work practice in kinship foster care. As child welfare agencies struggle to fit kinship foster care within the existing system of out-of-home care, the perspective of workers will play a vital role in successful kinship foster care practice.
This study sought to answer the following research questions: What are child welfare professionals' perceptions of kinship foster parents? Do they perceive of the kinship foster parents' role as different from that of nonkinship foster parents? Do they see their role and the role of the agency as different when they work with kinship versus nonkinship foster parents? What is their experience in working with kinship foster parents and how is it similar to or different from their work with nonkinship foster parents? Because past studies have shown that children of color make up a larger proportion of children in kinship foster care than children in nonkinship foster care [Beeman et al. 1996; Berrick et al. 1994; Dubowitz 1990; Iglehart 1994], and because kinship foster care emphasizes the preservation of racial and ethnic heritage in placement [Scannapieco & Jackson 1996], differences in perceptions by race of the child welfare professionals were also explored.
The survey instrument was developed based on questionnaires and interview guides used in previous research on kinship foster care [Berrick et al. 1994; LeProhn & Pecora 1994; Thornton 1987], and reviewed by a project advisory board of child welfare professionals. The survey included questions about child welfare professionals' perceptions on: (1) kinship foster parents' motivation for becoming foster parents; (2) foster parent functioning; (3) children's well-being in kinship foster care; (4) kinship foster parents' attitudes toward adoption; (5) kinship and nonkinship foster parents' roles and responsibilities; (6) foster parents' relationships with the social worker; (7) agency roles and responsibilities; and (8) policy and practice issues in kinship foster care. Most questions were scored on a five-point Likert scale, although the survey also included some closed- and open-ended questions.
The survey was distributed by mail during the spring and summer of 1995 to child welfare professionals employed by county departments of social services in three Minnesota counties: one rural, one urban, and one metropolitan. To gain information about the perceptions of professionals in a variety of roles within the child welfare system, the surveys were distributed to direct practitioners, supervisors, and administrators in intake, licensing, children's services, adoption, and permanency units. To maximize the representativeness of the sample, different sampling strategies were used in the three counties. Because the population of child welfare workers was small in the rural (N = 21) and metropolitan counties (N = 47), the survey was sent to all county employees in the relevant positions. In the urban county (N = 383), the survey was sent to a sample of 313 workers.l Two follow-up reminders were sent to the child welfare professionals in an attempt to increase the response rate.
A total of 381 surveys were distributed, and 261 were returned for an overall response rate of 68.1%. The response rate varied by county: 66.1% (207 of 313) responded from the urban county, 91.5% (43 of 47) from the metropolitan county, and 52.4% (11 of 21) from the rural county. While a 68% response rate is quite good for a mail survey, possible sources of bias in the sample were explored by comparing it to the larger population on known characteristics. The response rate by type of position did not vary greatly. Seventy percent of administrators and supervisors returned their surveys, and 71.3% of intake, field, and licensing workers returned their surveys. The lowest response rate (50.1%) was among workers with the least day-to-day contact with kinship foster care mental health care workers, psychologists, and adoption workers. Furthermore, the proportion of respondents of color in the urban county (the county with the largest proportion of workers of color in the population) was similar to the proportion of workers of color in the county child welfare system (24.2% in the sample compared to 21.6% in the population).
This analysis focused on reporting the perceptions and attitudes of child welfare professionals toward kinship foster care for the sample as a whole, and secondarily, on exploring differences in perceptions and attitudes by worker race. As the number of respondents in any one racial category was quite small, all workers of color were combined into one group for analysis. In addition, due to small cell sizes in the crosstabulations, strongly agree and agree were combined into one category, as were strongly disagree and disagree. In conducting bivariate analyses of differences in perceptions and attitudes by the race of the worker, chi-square tests of significance were conducted.
Table 1 describes the gender and race of the 261 survey respondents. Seventy-nine percent of the 248 respondents for whom race was known were Caucasian and 21% were from communities of color. The urban county had the most diversity in terms of the race of respondents.
Overall, survey respondents were highly educated and experienced in child welfare. Over half of the respondents (51.4%) had an M.S.W.; an additional 14.7% had a master's degree in another field. The number of years of experience in child welfare ranged from 0 to 36, with a mean of 11.4 years and a median of 9.5 years. The majority of respondents (78.2%) were direct service practitioners (case aides, social workers, senior social workers, child protection social workers/specialists, clinical social workers and clinical psychologists); 12.3% were supervisors; and 9.6% were administrators.
The survey defined kinship foster care as "children placed by the child welfare system with relatives or others with close familial ties." Using this definition, respondents were asked if they had any involvement with kinship foster care cases. The majority of respondents (81.5%) reported some involvement with kinship foster care. Overall, respondents reported a mean of 5.3 years of experience with kinship foster care.2 Workers served in a variety of roles within kinship foster care. Of the 212 respondents who reported some involvement with kinship foster care, 50.9% reported that they had supervised kinship foster care placements, 69.8% reported that they had worked with children placed in kinship foster care placements, and 44.3% reported conducting home studies on kinship foster homes.
Perceptions of Kinship Foster Parents and Children's Well-Being in Kinship Foster Care
Workers were asked a series of questions about their perceptions of foster parents and kinship foster care: Why do they think kin become foster parents? What is their perception of kin functioning as foster parents? In their opinion, how do children fare in kinship foster care?
As table 2 indicates, most respondents believed that kinship foster parents are motivated by familial obligations and expectations. Approximately 83.4% agreed that kinship foster parents are motivated to provide care by their strong desire to hold their family together and 63.0% agreed that kinship foster parents provided care because of family expectations. Only 11.6% agreed that kinship foster parents were motivated by money. There were no significant differences in these perceptions between Caucasian workers and workers of color.
Two open-ended questions were asked about kinship and nonkinship foster parents' motivation for being a foster parent. The reason most often given by workers for kin choosing to become foster parents was "family responsibility" or "to keep the family together" (68.6% of respondents). The second most frequently given reason was "to help or care for children" (15.9%); a third reason given was "money" (11.7%.) In contrast, when asked why nonkin choose to become foster parents, 57.6% of respondents believed that the major reason was "to help children," followed by money (18.4%), "social responsibility" or "for the good of the community" (9.0%), and "because they like working with kids" (6.9%).
Asked about their perceptions of foster parent functioning, half of the child welfare professionals surveyed agreed that kinship foster parents are competent in foster parenting, although over one-third neither agreed nor disagreed with this statement. Even so, most workers agreed that children were better off being placed with kin rather than nonkin (76.8%), that children placed in kinship foster care demonstrate a stronger sense of belonging in the foster family than do children who are in nonkinship foster homes (69.7%), that kinship foster care can be beneficial to the kin foster child in his/her identity formation (92.1%), and that family ties are better preserved in kinship foster care (74.5%) (table 2). The majority of respondents (73.0%) agreed that a child in kinship foster care is less troubled regarding his or her foster child status than a child in nonkinship foster care. Most respondents (61.7%) also agreed that the stigma of foster care is lessened in kinship foster care.
The only statistically significant difference between Caucasian workers and workers of color in responses to this set of questions was that a larger percentage of workers of color than Caucasian workers (80.8% compared to 66.7%, p < 0.05) agreed that children placed in kinship foster homes demonstrate a stronger sense of belonging than those in nonkinship foster homes.
Perceptions of Kinship Foster Parents' Interest in Adoption and of the Foster Parent Role
Some disagreement exists among child welfare professionals regarding the role of adoption in kinship foster care, and about kin's interest in adoption [Thornton 1991; Gleeson 1993; Testa et al. 1996]. Some studies have concluded that, because adoption requires the total termination of parental rights, it is culturally unacceptable to some kin [Berrick et al. 1994].
In general, the workers responding believed that kinship foster parents do not want to adopt or do not feel that adoption is necessary. Over 62.6% of respondents believed that kinship foster parents do not feel adoption is necessary because family ties already exist; and 67.8% agreed that kinship foster parents do not want to adopt because they believe that adoption would cause conflicts in their relationships with the child's biological parents. Approximately 34.2% agreed that kinship foster parents show little interest in adoption.
Table 3 describes differences between Caucasian workers and workers of color in responses to these questions. Workers of color were significantly more likely than Caucasian workers to agree that kinship foster parents believe that adoption is unnecessary because family ties already exist, and significantly more likely than Caucasian workers to disagree that kinship foster parents do not want to adopt because it would cause conflict in their relationships with the biological parents of the child in their care.
To examine child welfare professionals' perceptions of the roles and responsibilities of kinship vs. nonkinship foster parents, workers were also given two separate lists, each comprising 18 identical "parental tasks," and asked to indicate the extent to which the kinship foster parent and nonkinship foster parent should be responsible for the task. The task list (a revised version of one developed by LeProhn and Pecora ), ranged from items such as transporting the child to appointments and shopping for the child's clothes to arranging visits with birth parents3 to helping the child deal with issues related to being separated from his/her birth parents. The specific responsibilities represent several roles for foster parents, including the "parenting" role and the "birth family facilitator" role [LeProhn 1994]. Workers could choose from among four responses: "not at all," "somewhat," "quite a bit," or "entirely" responsible for the task.
Table 4 describes the percentage of respondents who said that each type of foster parent was entirely or quite a bit responsible for each task. The first ten items represent aspects of the "parenting role"; the remaining items represent aspects of the "birth family facilitator role." Some of the most dramatic differences between workers' perceptions of kin and nonkin responsibilities were among aspects of the birth family facilitator role. The workers were more likely to believe that kinship foster parents, as compared to nonkinship foster parents, are responsible for tasks such as arranging visits, talking to the birth parent about the child, and teaching children how to deal with their relationships with their birth families.
Experience Working with Kinship Foster Parents
Child welfare professionals were asked about their experiences working with kinship foster parents. Over 42% agreed that kinship foster parents are more difficult to supervise than nonkinship foster parents; 24.6% disagreed. Most respondents, however, did not agree that kinship foster parents are resistant to supervision by the agency: 27.6% agreed, 40.4% were neutral, and 32% disagreed. In addition, 57.8% of respondents agreed that most kinship foster parents are cooperative with the agency and only 11.2% disagreed; and 49.6% of respondents agreed and 13.2% disagreed that kinship foster parents are open and sharing with social workers regarding the kinship foster child. Finally, 55.9% of respondents said they enjoyed working with kinship foster parents, while only 3.7% said they did not. There were distinct differences by race of the worker on the perception of kinship foster parents being more difficult to supervise (table 5) than nonkinship families. Respondents of color were more likely than Caucasian respondents to disagree that kinship foster parents are difficult to supervise. Over 42% of respondents of color disagreed with this statement, compared to 19.3% of Caucasian respondents. Respondents of color were also more likely than Caucasian respondents to disagree that most kinship foster parents are resistant to agency supervision (50% compared to 27%). Finally, respondents of color were more likely than Caucasian respondents to say that they enjoyed working with kinship foster parents (73.1% compared to 52.2%).
Workers were asked for their perceptions of the biggest problems that social workers face in dealing with kinship foster parents. A content analysis of the responses to this open-ended question resulted in the identification of several issues. One of the issues most frequently mentioned by workers related to agency authority and supervision of cases. Workers mentioned difficulties in communicating with kinship foster parents, with kin cooperation with the case plan, and with kin understanding their role as foster parents. The second most frequently mentioned issue was the kinship foster parent's prior and ongoing relationship with the biological parent. Workers mentioned issues such as kin's lack of objectivity about the child and biological parents, the kinship foster parents' overinvolvement with biological parents, and kin's loyalty to biological parents. Third, some workers felt that kinship foster parents needed more of the worker's time and support in negotiating the "system." Many of these issues could be interpreted as issues related to kinship foster parents taking on the foster parent role differently than do nonkinship foster parents.
Agency Roles and Responsibilities
Workers were surveyed regarding their views on agency roles and responsibilities with kinship foster parents. Most of the respondents surveyed agreed that the unique features of kinship foster care should translate into special programming by the agency (table 6). For example, the overwhelming majority of respondents felt that specialized kinship foster parent training and specialized support groups for kinship foster parents should be offered by agencies. In addition, 78.4% of respondents agreed that the agency's role expectations for kinship foster parents should accommodate the uniqueness of their position. However, 44.3% disagreed that kinship foster parents should be granted more autonomy than nonkinship foster parents in raising their foster children, while 28.7% agreed. In fact, 52.8% of the respondents disagreed that licensing standards for kinship foster homes should be less stringent than for nonkinship foster homes, while 32.1% of respondents agreed. There were no significant differences by worker race.
Workers were also asked what payment rate they believed kinship foster parents should receive for caring for relative children. Approximately 58.6% of respondents believed that kinship foster parents should be paid foster parent rates, 21.7% believed they should be paid AFDC rates, and 16.8% believed they should be paid more than AFDC but less than foster parent rates. Workers of color and Caucasian workers differed significantly in their beliefs about pay rates for kinship foster parents. The majority of workers of color (82.4%) believed that kinship foster parents should be paid foster parent rates, with only 5.9% believing they should be paid AFDC rates; 11.8% believed they should be paid between the two levels of payment. Among Caucasian workers, 52.9% believed kinship foster parents should be paid foster parent rates, 27% believed they should be paid AFDC rates, and 20.1% believed they should be paid between the two levels.
The child welfare professionals surveyed were asked if they had any suggestions for improving effective agency practice with kinship foster parents. Many of the suggestions made by workers focused on training for kinship foster parents on specific issues such as the social worker's role, reunification and permanency planning, boundary issues with biological parents, children with special needs, and preparation for adoption. The professionals surveyed also mentioned the need for specialized training for licensing and child protection workers on working with kinship foster parents. Specifically, respondents mentioned training that is research based, and training related to cultural competence. Finally, workers suggested that the agency consider policy and practice changes that allow for the uniqueness of kinship foster care-particularly with respect to new permanency options, licensing issues, and kin's involvement in developing case plans.
Summary and Discussion
The results of this survey with child welfare professionals in three Minnesota counties indicate that most have experience with kinship foster care and that they generally have a positive perception of kinship foster care and kinship foster parents. It is important to note that many child welfare professionals surveyed expressed neutral opinions about kinship foster care. Whether this indicates a reluctance to take a stance, a lack of experience working with kin, or some other factor, is unknown. Differences were found between Caucasian workers and workers of color on some perceptions of kinship foster care, with workers of color generally expressing a more positive perception.
Overall, child welfare professionals believe that kinship foster parents are motivated to provide care by familial obligation and a desire to hold the family together, rather than by money. The majority of workers believe that kinship foster parents are competent in foster parenting, that children are better off being placed with kin than nonkin, and that kinship foster care can be beneficial to kin foster children in identity formation. A majority believed that children in kinship foster care may be less troubled about their status as a foster child than children in nonkinship foster care and that kinship placement lessens the stigma of foster care. The majority of all workers (and a significantly larger proportion of workers of color), believed that children placed in kinship foster care demonstrate a stronger sense of belonging than children in nonkinship foster care. These findings suggest that workers recognize the potential benefits to children of being placed in kinship foster care.
Workers also reported generally positive experiences working with kin, although many believed that kin were more difficult than nonkin foster parents to supervise. Open-ended questions revealed concerns about kin's cooperation with case plans and understanding of their agency regulations and the role of the agency. Child welfare professionals viewed the role of kinship foster parents as different than that of nonkinship foster parents-particularly in "birth family facilitator roles" such as arranging visits with birth parents, talking with birth parents about the child's adjustment to foster care, talking to the birth parent about the child's behavior, and teaching the child how to deal with future relationships with the birth family. At the same time, workers mentioned the foster parents' ongoing relationship with the biological family as one of the biggest difficulties in working with kinship foster parents. Thus, while workers recognize the advantages of kin's relationship with biological parents, they are also aware of the disadvantages.
Finally, workers agreed that the agency should make some changes in practice with kinship foster parents-particularly in the areas of training and support. There were, however, some things that they believed should not change for kinship foster parents-the majority of workers believed that kinship foster parents should be paid foster parent rates. This was particularly true among workers of color. Workers also generally believed that licensing standards should not be less stringent for kinship foster parents.
Thus, the findings indicate that child welfare professionals are generally supportive of kinship foster care, recognize its unique nature, and believe that agency practice and policy should reflect that unique nature. However, their ambivalence about the kin foster parent role-relying on kin to facilitate with the biological family while also identifying the ongoing relationship between kin and biological parent as one of the biggest difficulties indicates a need for specific practice guidelines in this area.
Implications for Practice
This survey's results have important implications for preparing child welfare professionals for practice with kinship foster parents and children in kinship foster care. First, the uniqueness of kinship foster care and of the kinship foster parent role needs to be recognized and reflected in agency policy and practice. Child welfare professionals in the study perceived of the kinship foster parent role differently than that of the nonkinship foster parent. In particular, they emphasized kin's role as "birth family facilitators." At the same time, these professionals recognized that the ongoing relationship between kin and biological parents was sometimes an obstacle to successful practice. Child welfare agencies must provide guidelines to workers about how to balance these aspects of the kinship role. Appropriate roles for kin should be clarified and clearly communicated to kinship foster parents, biological parents, and workers. In addition, workers should recognize that the kin foster parent's ongoing relationships with the biological family may be an advantage in facilitating permanency for the child in kinship foster care.
Second, kinship foster parents may require a different type of orientation to the child welfare system and to negotiating the system of related services than do nonkin. Most kinship foster parents do not have the advantage of training and orientation prior to taking on the foster parent role. Training and orientation should be designed specifically to orient kin to the child welfare system and related systems. Child welfare agencies should consider providing liaisons for kinship foster parents-individuals who can provide ongoing orientation and support without overburdening kin with required training and orientation sessions. These efforts may, in turn, improve communication and lessen the perception that kin are "difficult to supervise."
Third, permanency options for children in kinship foster care should be clearly communicated to kinship foster parents. Workers should discuss all of the permanency options with kin, and not assume that kin are not interested in adoption. Survey respondents expressed a belief that kin were not interested in adoption, but recent research [Gleeson et al. 1997] suggests that this may not be the case. All kinship foster parents should be informed of the full range of permanency options for the children in their care.
Finally, the findings indicate that child welfare agencies must continue to strive for cultural competence among workers through ongoing training. Caucasian workers in the study were more likely than workers of color to believe that kinship foster parents were difficult to supervise. Because children of color make up a larger proportion of children in kinship foster care than children in nonkinship foster care [Beeman et al. 1996; Berrick et al. 1994; Dubowitz 1990; Iglehart 1994], it may be that kinship foster care is more likely to expose Caucasian workers to foster parents with cultural backgrounds different from their own. As Gleeson et al.  suggest, successful practice with kin may require training that focuses on the strengths of the extended family network and different roles of kin in childrearing as reflected in various nonmajority cultures.
Kinship foster care provides new challenges and new opportunities for child welfare professionals. The support of these professionals, along with their willingness to make changes in current practice, will play a key role in the successful integration of kinship care into the child welfare system.
Sandra Beeman and Laura Boisen
Sandra Beeman, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota School of Social Work, Minneapolis, MN. Laura Boisen, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor, Augsburg College Department of Social Work, Minneapolis, MN. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Council on Social Work Education's 43rd Annual Program Meeting in March 1997. Funding for this survey and the authors' larger project on kinship foster care was provided by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs at the University of Minnesota.…