In the Interest of Children: Rethinking Federal and State Policies Affecting Kinship Care

Article excerpt

The extended family has long played a role in caring for children whose parents were unable to do so-a practice commonly referred to as kinship care. In contrast, child welfare agencies' reliance on kin to act as foster parents is relatively new. When the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was passed, forming the basis of federal foster care policy, it was very rare for a child's relative to act as a foster parent. Today, child welfare agencies increasingly consider kin as the first placement choice when foster care is needed and kin can provide a safe home.

Yet very little information is available on the extent to which kin serve as foster parents and how this practice varies across states. Thus, it has been difficult for federal and state policymakers, as well as advocates and practitioners, to evaluate how well kinship care ensures children's safety, promotes permanency in their living situations, and enhances their well-being-three basic goals of the child welfare system. Nonetheless, both federal and state governments continue to implement kinship care policiesboth explicitly and implicitly. Despite having limited information on the use of kin foster parents, it is time for policymakers to step back and reflect on when the use of kin is consistent with the best interests of children, the goals of using kin as foster parents, and whether existing policies support such goals.

DEFINING KINSHIP CARE

Traditionally kinship care has been described as either "informal," meaning that such caregiving arrangements occurred without the involvement of a child welfare agency, or "formal," meaning that kin act as foster parents for children in state custody. Unfortunately, the use of the terms informal and formal to describe the range of kinship care arrangements may be misleading and inaccurate. For example, referring to kinship caregiving outside the purview of the child welfare system as informal may incorrectly imply that such arrangements are short term or tenuous. Some informal kinship caregivers have legal custody of related children through adoption or guardianship, and others have legal decision-making authority through a power of attorney. In short, some informal kinship care arrangements are more formal than others. Likewise, as discussed below, kinship care arrangements designated as "formal" vary in the extent to which they are publicly supported and monitored.

Neither informal nor formal kinship care describes instances in which child welfare agencies help arrange the placement of a child with a relative but do not seek court action to obtain custody of the child. For example, during or after a child protective services investigation, a caseworker may advise a parent to place a child with a relative; both the parent and the relative know that if the parent refuses, the agency may petition the court to obtain custody of the child. Many child welfare experts have argued that these so-called "voluntary" kinship care placements are common (Takas, 1993).

Given the limitations of the terms formal and informal, I refer to all kinship care arrangements that occur without the child welfare agency's involvement as private kinship care and all kinship care arrangements that occur with child welfare contact as either kinship foster care or voluntary kinship care.

CHILDREN IN KINSHIP CARE

In 1997, approximately 2 million children were living with neither of their parents, 1.7 million of these were living with relatives.1 The vast majority of children who lived with relatives (1.3 million) were in private kinship care; 194,000 were in kinship foster care and 284,000 children were in voluntary kinship care.

In 1983-85 and 1992-93,(2) the number of children in private kinship care grew slightly faster than the number of children in the United States as a whole, 8.4 percent vs. 6.6 percent (Harden, Clark, and Maguire, 1997). Many researchers argue that during this period such social ills as increased homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, juvenile delinquency, AIDS, and child abuse and neglect placed great pressure on the nuclear family and caused this increase (Hornby, Zeller, and Karraker, 1995; Spar, 1993). …

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