The Heterogeneity of Children and Their Experiences in Kinship Care

By Leslie, Laurel K.; Landsverk, John et al. | Child Welfare, May/June 2000 | Go to article overview

The Heterogeneity of Children and Their Experiences in Kinship Care


Leslie, Laurel K., Landsverk, John, Horton, Mark B., Ganger, William, Newton, Rae R., Child Welfare


Increasingly, children in need of out-of-home care are being placed in kinship care, yet few studies have followed their placement histories longitudinally to determine if these children constitute a homogeneous group or heterogeneous subgroups. This study of 484 children in kinship care in San Diego County, California, indicates that children in kinship care have markedly different sociodemographic and maltreatment histories, as well as heterogeneous placement experiences.

Over the last decade, the number of children in out-ofhome care in the United States has increased substantially. In 1995, over 482,000 children and youths were in the out-of-home care system [Barbell 1997]. These children are usually placed in one of three types of settings: (1) with a nonkinship foster family (family foster care); (2) in group care; and (3) with extended family members (kinship care).

Children in need of out-of-home care have increasingly been placed in kinship care in the last several years, and it is now recognized as the fastest growing sector of out-of-home placement by child welfare agencies themselves [Gleeson & Craig 1994]. Although national statistics regarding the number of children in kinship care are not available, estimates are that over one-fourth of the approximately 500,000 American children in care, many of them young children, are living with kin [Barbell 1997; Klee et al. 1997]. Data from several states document this increasing use of kinship care; over 45% of foster children in both Illinois and California in the early 1990s were placed with kin [Barth et al. 1994; Wulczyn & Goerge 1992; Dubowitz et al. 1993].

This burgeoning interest in kinship placements by the child welfare system results from two major trends in the delivery of services to children in need of care. First, the use of kinship care reflects the growing crisis between supply and demand in child welfare; the number of children entering out-of-home care is increasing concurrent with a decrease in the number of nonkinship foster parents accepting children [Child Welfare League of America 1997; Berrick & Barth 1994]. Second, the increased use of kinship placement reflects legislative and policy initiatives over the last two decades that have focused on family preservation and family ties. This emphasis was reiterated in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (P L. 104-193), which requires states to consider giving preference to an adult relative over a nonrelated caregiver when determining placement [Children's Defense Fund 1996].

Research suggests that kinship care placement may provide potential advantages for children in need of care. Children placed with kin are more often placed with their siblings [Duerr-Berrick et al. 1994] and have a closer connection with members of their immediate family [Duerr-Berrick et al.1994; Le Prohn 1994]. Kinship caregivers appear to be more willing to focus on the separation and loss the child experiences when removed from his or her home than are nonrelative caregivers [Le Prohn 1994]. Children in kinship care also move less frequently and enjoy more stability in their out-of-home placement [Duerr-Berrick et al.1994; Iglehart 1994]. They also may experience less maltreatment while in out-of-home care than do children in nonrelative family foster care [Zuravin et al. 1997].

A less optimistic view of kinship care also exists. Children in kinship care typically are not reunified with their families as often or as early as children in nonrelative family foster care [DuerrBerrick et al. 1994; Wulczyn & Goerge 1992]. Delay in reunification for children placed in kinship care may be due to multiple factors, including bureaucratic child welfare systems, financial obstacles, and the lack of significant involvement of kinship caregivers in service planning (Barth et al. 1994; Gleeson et al. 1997]. In addition, cohort studies indicate that many children in kinship care do not obtain needed medical and mental health services [Dubowitz et al. …

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