Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004
Strengthening Families' Ability to Protect
Before they enter foster care, children often have been exposed to inappropriate, inconsistent, or, at worst, destructive parenting, which can itself lead to long-term problems.59 But the promise of foster care, backed by research, is that loving, positive, and consistent caregiving can, as Jones Harden writes, “compensate for factors that have a deleterious impact on children.” To give children in foster care the greatest chance at healthy development, the system must provide caregivers with the emotional and financial resources they need to play a healing role for the children in their care.
Healing Fragile Birth Families
Children that come to the attention of child welfare agencies are typically from families with multiple problems and minimal resources. These fragile families are overwhelmingly poor, live in high-risk environments, and are often simultaneously grappling with such intractable problems as substance abuse, mental illness, physical illness, violence in the home, and inadequate housing.
Child welfare agencies often do not provide an appropriate array of services and supports to meet the needs of these fragile families. Needed services may not be available or accessible, limiting the ability of birth families to meet their case plan requirements and regain custody of their children. For example, one study found that a lack of substance-abuse treatment programs, affordable housing, and other services were among the barriers birth families must overcome to be reunified with their children.60 Overcoming these barriers within the shortened timelines instituted under ASFA can be even more daunting.
Many child welfare agencies are building partnerships with community-based agencies to provide more physically and culturally accessible services for families. For example, with the support of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, several child welfare agencies have begun implementing a community-based model of foster care called “Family to Family” that draws on community resources so that children can be placed with families and receive services in their home communities.61
“Strengths-based” family interventions are another tool that child welfare agencies can use to provide individualized supports and services to birth families. As several authors in this journal issue describe, too often child welfare workers prescribe the same services to all families despite their widely disparate needs, even though child welfare policy allows for more individualized services; and, too often, family assessments focus on deficits rather than strengths. As a result, birth families often experience the child welfare system as adversarial and may be reluctant to engage with a system they view as punitive. A strengths-based perspective identifies a family's positive qualities—such as employment, an extended family support network, or access to child care—and works to activate these strengths and incorporate them into the case plan.
In addition, strengths-based practices such as family group conferencing actively incorporate family input into the decision-making process. A family group conference is a formal meeting in which the child's immediate family, extended family, and community members come together to develop a plan for care. Early evaluations suggest that family group conferencing can be an effective tool for developing appropriate case plans and achieving permanency.63 Moreover, such practices can temper the adversarial nature of the child welfare system and provide a basis for more consensual decision making on the child's behalf.
As Wulczyn notes in this journal issue, although the overall rate of family reunification has declined in recent years, returning children safely to their birth families is an important goal of the child welfare system and remains the primary means of achieving permanence for children in foster care. Even when children are not reunified, birth families can be an important resource for children after they age out of the system. Significant investments in services are needed to help birth families overcome their problems and to prepare them to be reunified with their children or be a resource as their children transition out of care.
RECOMMENDATION: Services for Birth Families
Child welfare agencies should improve services to birth families by building partnerships with community-based organizations and integrating family-focused models, such as family group conferencing and mediation, into child welfare practice.
Supporting Nonrelated Foster Families and Kin Caregivers
Each year thousands of families open their homes and their hearts to children who have been removed from their birth families. Families often find the foster parenting experience both rewarding and overwhelming. Caring for children in foster care is a complex endeavor that requires families to navigate many systems and agencies. Although their needs may vary, nonrelated foster families and kin caregivers could both benefit from supportive services to help them nurture the children in their care.
Nonrelated Foster Families
Foster parenting is one of the most demanding jobs a person can assume. Foster parents are expected to provide a home for the children in their care; work with child welfare agencies, schools, and other service providers to ensure that children's needs are met; and simultaneously establish relationships and arrange visitation with birth parents, which may eventually result in the children leaving their custody. The difficulties of foster parenting are compounded by the high level of care foster children often require, the low reimbursement rates most states give foster parents, and the inadequate support foster parents receive from caseworkers.
Given these challenges, it is no surprise that child welfare agencies often experience difficulties recruiting and retaining foster families. In recent years, the number of children placed in nonrelative foster homes has declined significantly. Currently, less than half of children in care live with licensed nonrelative foster families.63 Although the number of children in foster care grew by nearly 68% between 1984 and 1995, the number of foster families decreased by 4%.64 Moreover, according to a 1991 national survey commissioned by the National Commission on Family Foster Care, nearly 60% of foster parents quit within their first year. A lack of support from child welfare agencies was the primary reason given for leaving fostering.65
There are two key ways child welfare agencies can better support foster families. First, child welfare agencies can provide foster families with quality training that candidly discusses the challenges of foster parenting and the resources available to them. Better training would increase the likelihood that families would retain their licenses and continue to foster parent.66
Second, child welfare agencies can provide foster families with appropriate and accessible case management services. As discussed in the article by Stukes Chipungu and Bent-Goodley, even though ASFA provisions call for foster parents to participate in court proceedings for the foster children in their care, evidence suggests that some courts and caseworkers may be resistant to including foster parents in the process.67 Focus groups conducted in California found that social workers, attorneys, and judges were often ambivalent about including foster parents in decision making. Moreover, foster families regularly report that caseworkers are inaccessible, nonsupportive, and at times disrespectful.68 To improve case management, child welfare agencies need to view foster parents as vital partners and take steps to be more responsive and inclusive. Keeping the lines of communication open, helping foster families access needed services and keeping foster parents informed about the progress of a child's case are concrete means of providing support. Additionally, providing foster parents with alternative caregivers or respite care, is particularly important for reducing stress levels and preventing “burn-out.”
Kinship care is one of the oldest human traditions, yet only since the passage of federal welfare reform in 1996 and ASFA in 1997 has it been formally recognized as a legitimate placement option for children in foster care. Since then, the number of children formally placed with kin has increased, and more services and dollars have been directed toward this group of caregivers. Available data suggest that kin caregivers are also the fastest-growing group of foster care providers, increasing from approximately 18% in 1986 to 31% in 1990.69 The best estimates are that approximately 500,000 children who have had some involvement with the child welfare system are currently living in kinship care arrangements.70
Kinship care has several distinct advantages for children in care. Usually children have established relationships with kin, so the trauma of being removed from their birth parents may be less acute than when children are placed in nonrelative care. As kin share the same racial and ethnic heritage of birth parents, familial and cultural traditions can also be preserved. Children living with kin also tend to experience greater placement stability than children in other placements.
However, kin caregivers differ in significant ways from nonrelative foster parents, and these differences suggest that kin often face more challenges as foster parents compared with nonrelative caregivers. Kin tend to be older, are more likely to be single, have lower educational attainment, and are more likely to be in poor health than nonrelative caregivers. Kin also have existing relationships with the birth parents, who are often the caregivers' own children. These ties can complicate efforts to control birth parents' access to their children. Children who live in kinship care are more likely to have unsupervised parental visitation than are children in nonrelative care, which may put the children at greater risk of being re-abused.
Despite the greater challenges and more complicated and emotionally wrenching situations many kinship caregivers face, they are likely to receive less financial assistance and case management services than nonrelative caregivers receive. This is due in part to the inconsistent and haphazard development of licensing and foster care payment policies for kin caregivers. All kin who serve as foster parents are required to be licensed by their state. To receive federal reimbursement, states must license kin under the same standards as nonrelative foster families, and kin must be caring for children from income-eligible households. However, for kin who will not receive federal reimbursement, states have broad discretion in determining licensing criteria and foster care payments. As Geen notes in his article in this journal issue, licensing criteria and payment policies can vary significantly across states. In some states, such as California and Oregon, only kin caring for foster children who are eligible for federal reimbursement receive foster care payments. In other states, kin who cannot receive federal foster care monies may be eligible for state payments; however, they may not receive state assistance if they are licensed under kin-specific licensing criteria. Moreover, it appears that caseworkers are not doing enough to inform kin about the resources available to them. In fact, research suggests that many kin caregivers may be unaware that they are eligible for financial assistance.71
Research also indicates that kin request fewer services —and receive fewer of the services that they do request—compared with nonrelative foster families. Kin are often reluctant to contact child welfare agencies and may do so only when circumstances have reached the point of crisis. As a result, not only do they receive fewer services overall, but once they do request help, their needs may be more intense and immediate than those of nonrelative foster parents.72 Thus, this vulnerable group of caregivers often do not receive adequate resources to attend to the children in their care.
In sum, both nonrelated foster families and kin caregivers require specialized supports to optimize the healthy development of children in their care. Further action is required to identify and respond to the unique service and support needs of these vitally important caregivers.
RECOMMENDATION: Services for Foster Families
Child welfare agencies should develop an array of supports and services tailored to the needs of nonrelated foster families and kin caregivers, such as foster parent training and respite care, and ensure that their workforce is adequately trained to identify and respond to these families' needs.
The Importance of After-Care Services
Each year, about 260,000 children leave foster care: 57% to reunite with parents, 18% to be adopted, 10% to live with other relatives, and 3% to be cared for in legal guardianship arrangements.73 For most children, these families prove stable and lasting. But for some children, their new living arrangements fail shortly after they exit the system, especially when they reunify with their birth parents. In 2000, nearly 10% of children reunified with their parents returned to foster care within a year.74 In its most recent review of child outcomes, the Department of Health and Human Services found that states that had a high percentage of children reunified with their parents within 12 months of removal also had a high percentage of reentries into the foster care system.75 Of the 21 states that met the national standard for reunification timing, only two— Wyoming and South Carolina—also met the goal for reentries into foster care.76 Although, for methodological reasons, caution must be exercised in drawing definitive conclusions, these findings suggest that more services may be needed to support successful reunification.
Recent research also suggests that children who are reunified with their birth parents may experience poorer outcomes compared to children who exited to other permanent placements.77 Again, these findings must be considered with caution. Determining what factors affect poor outcomes for maltreated children is often difficult to disentangle.78 However, research does indicate that the reunification process, and the reasons children may not thrive when they are reunified, warrant further study. At a minimum, these findings suggest that the availability, duration, and quality of services and supports provided to families in the postreunification period may be inadequate.
Less is known about reentry rates for children who exit to adoption, legal guardianship, or kinship care, but the available data suggest that reentry rates are quite low. According to the article by Testa in this journal issue, data from one state, Illinois, indicate that between 1998 and 2000, only 1.5% of children who were adopted,79 and only about 2% of children placed with subsidized legal guardians, reentered foster care. Although the study did not include data on the stability of kinship care placements, these placements generally tend to have lower reentry rates than reunification when children are reunified. Nevertheless, kin placements are not immune to disruption, particularly when kin caregivers do not receive postpermanency services or financial assistance.80
When children are reunified with their birth parents or exit to another permanent placement, families need services to support the permanency process. Reunified families tend to need basic resources such as housing, employment, and income in addition to counseling, health services, and educational services.81 Adoptive parents report that they need more information on services available to them, assistance with educational services, access to after-school activities, and mental health counseling.82 Much less is known about the needs of kin families, but kinship caregivers and legal guardians probably need services similar to those needed by reunified families. Regardless of the type of placement, individualized case management and monitoring after placement are essential to ensure that families receive an appropriate array of services and to reduce the number of children returning to foster care.
RECOMMENDATION: Support to Preserve Permanency
Child welfare agencies should continue to support families following a permanent placement to promote children's well-being after exiting the system, whether that happens through reunification, adoption, or legal guardianship.