Academic journal article Child Welfare

Introduction: Kinship Care Policy and Practice: (Second Issue)

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Introduction: Kinship Care Policy and Practice: (Second Issue)

Article excerpt

More than two decades ago, the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) published Kinship Care: A Natural Bridge (Child Welfare League of America, 1994). The report assembled the best thinking and scholarship available at the time to address the emerging issue of kinship care in the field of child welfare. Even though the alternative care of children by extended family, tribal members, and other primary groups is deeply rooted in human evolutionary and cultural history, it was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that child welfare practitioners and policy-makers put concerted efforts into reconciling the natural-customary sources of informal kinship care with the rational-legal foundations of formal foster care. Despite some progress in reconciling the informal agency relationships of kinship solidarity and customary trust with the formal agency relationships of contractual exchange and generalized beneficence (Testa, 2013), significant challenges still remain in demarcating the boundaries between informal and formal kinship care and in ensuring that kinship caregivers, birth parents, and their children receive the support and services they need from the public child welfare system.

The purpose of this introduction is to offer a conceptual framework for addressing the challenges involved in developing a coherent set of policies and practices with respect to kinship care. The challenges span two key tensions in the public protection and care of vulnerable children. The first concerns the appropriate scope of public interest in the welfare of other people's children: Should child welfare policy be constrained to a narrow set of functions that ensure children are adequately fed, sheltered, clothed, and protected from physical harm, or should it be unconstrained in the pursuit of a diffuse array of improvements in children's general well-being? The second concerns the appropriate locus of agency relationships in the protection and care of children: Should actions taken by non-parental agents on behalf of the interests in children be largely the informal responsibility of the particularistic agency relationships of extended kinship, tribal affiliation, and voluntary association, or should the universalistic agency relationships of child protective services (CPS) and court authority ultimately be held accountable for ensuring adequate safety, family permanence, and equal developmental opportunities for all vulnerable children?

An agency relationship is one in which an individual or collective agent is delegated the discretion to act on behalf of the interests of another individual or class of individuals, also known as principals (Testa & Poertner, 2010). The intersection of the two dimensions of locus of agency relationships (informal vs. formal) and scope of public interest (constrained vs. unconstrained; Sowell, 2007) frame a matrix of policy choices that, on the constrained side, range from: (A) deferring to the autonomy and discretion of informal primary groups to raise children as they deem appropriate to (B) enforcing uniform caregiving practices that uphold minimal formal standards of child protection, care, and discipline. On the unconstrained side, the choices range from: (C) redistributing resources to enable informal primary groups to raise children as best they can to (D) investing in formal agency relationships of early education, mental health services, foster homes, and adoption assistance, which can supplement or substitute for primary group relationships that don't measure up to majority expectations.

Much of the history of child welfare in general and kinship care in particular can be interpreted as evolving from policy A, under mid19th-century poor law doctrines of family autonomy and relative liability, to policy B, with the spread of child rescue societies and the growth of orphanages and family foster care as alternatives to in-home care in the late 19th century (Costin, 1993; Meyers, 2008). …

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