Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998
Jill Duerr Berrick
Foster care is designed to provide temporary care, supervision, and support to children who cannot live at home because they have been abused or neglected by their parents. In 1995, more than one million children were reported as victims of child maltreatment in the United States,1 a number that reflected substantial growth over the previous two decades. As the number of families reported to child welfare authorities has rapidly increased, so has the number of children requiring substitute care. The substitute care population increased from 276,000 children in 1985 to approximately 494,000 children a decade later.2
When children are removed from their homes, they may be placed in a variety of settings. In many states, foster family care has been the predominant form of substitute care for several decades.3 Foster parents are usually licensed by the county or state, indicating that their homes have been assessed for basic health and safety standards, and that the caregivers have participated in at least minimal training to provide care and supervision for a child. Other substitute settings in which children may live include specialized foster care with caregivers specifically trained to care for special needs children, group homes, residential treatment centers, and shelters.
A growing proportion of children in the foster care system are cared for by their relatives. Relatives have no legal obligation to become children's caregivers, but kin are increasingly likely to exercise their responsibility to their extended family members. In some states, child welfare authorities recognize kin as foster caregivers within the child welfare system only if they participate in training and become licensed in the same manner as foster parents.4,5 In other states, preferences for kin have been written into legal statutes. In California, the preference encompasses kin who have not been licensed or trained by child welfare authorities.6 These differences in philosophy and policy result in great variability in the use of kinship care among states.
Though policies toward kin differ, the increased reliance on relatives as a resource for abused and neglected children is bringing with it significant changes in child welfare practice. This article examines the factors that have contributed to the growth of kinship foster care and explains some of the policy tools that state and local governments use to oversee and support kin who care for children who have been removed from their homes. The article also reviews research suggesting how effectively kin placements address three major goals of the child welfare system: providing protection for children, support for families, and permanent homes. It concludes that despite their relatively disadvantaged status in terms of age and income, kin caregivers typically offer children a safe and nurturing environment. Their close ties to the child and to the child's birth family inherently support family bonds, although these ties also make many kin caregivers reluctant to consider adoption. In light of the increasing reliance on kin caregivers, new service strategies and policy solutions are needed to forge a workable balance between the competing interests of family privacy, equity in supports for families, and government responsibility for child protection.