Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998
Jill Duerr Berrick
The Growth of Kinship Foster Care
Since the mid-1980s, the use of kinship foster care has expanded rapidly. A 1990 national estimate indicated that 31% of children placed by child welfare authorities in out-of-home care resided with kin.7 This estimate was based on reports from 29 states that in their records and statistics, could separate relatives from unrelated foster parents. Another study indicated that, in the same year, the number of children placed in kinship foster care closely approached the number in other foster care placements in three large states (California, Illinois, and New York), while in Missouri, kin homes were less often used for foster care. (See Figure 1.) Differences are even sharper at the local level. In 1994, two-thirds of the children placed in care in Baltimore resided with kin, whereas in Norfolk, Virginia, only 2% of children in care were living with relatives.8
The overall growth in kinship foster care reflects a number of factors, such as changes in the availability of traditional foster care and the demand for it, as well as changing attitudes about the roles that government agencies and extended family members should play in protecting children.Shrinking Supply of Foster Homes
Generally, it is assumed that a decline in the number of available foster family homes during the 1980s prompted social workers to turn to kin as an essential placement resource. One study found that the number of available foster homes decreased from 147,000 nationwide in 1987 to approximately 100,000 three years later.3 The reduction in available foster homes may be due to the growth in the number of single-parent households, the growth in the proportion of women employed outside the home, the increase in divorce rates, or the rising costs of child rearing.9,10 All these factors make it more difficult for any family to take responsibility for raising additional children.Rising Demand
The second and related factor contributing to the rise in kinship placements was the growing census of children needing to be placed in out-of-home care. During the latter half of the 1980s, foster care caseloads climbed substantially. For example, from 1986 to 1989, the foster care caseload in New York State grew from 18,793 to 47,145,11 and in Illinois the foster care caseload more than doubled from 1986 to 1992.12 The increases were due, in large part, to the entrance of infants and other very young children into the child protection system; these young children tend to remain in out-of-home care for long periods of time.11,13 The introduction of crack cocaine into many low-income communities brought an onslaught of young children to foster care as women's drug involvement severely compromised their abilities to parent their young children.14Changing Attitudes
The third ingredient that contributed to changes in placement practices was a shift in values about the importance of kin as a resource for children.15,16 Traditionally, child welfare workers and judges have harbored significant ambivalence about placement with relatives, concerned that the maltreating parent's parenting practices were learned through interactions with members of a dysfunctional immediate or extended family.17,18 More recently, increasing numbers of child welfare workers have embraced the philosophical shift that values placement within the family, and that focuses on the strengths, rather than the deficits, of family members.19 Enthusiasm for kinship foster care has paralleled an overall trend in child welfare services toward more family-centered, community-based services to families. (See the article by McCroskey and Meezan in this journal issue.)Financial Incentives
Last, the introduction of payments for kinship caregivers may have profoundly changed child welfare placements.20 When a child whose family was eligible for cash assistance (formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children, or AFDC) is placed in foster care, the caregiver receives federally funded foster care payments to help offset the costs of maintenance and care of the child. (See the article by Courtney in this journal issue.) In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that kin should be eligible to receive these payments under specified conditions similar to those imposed on nonkin foster parents.21 Interpretations of this ruling have led to different financial reimbursement policies in various states: in some, kin receive these payments only if they meet the same licensing standards as nonkin foster parents. Other states have developed more lenient approval standards for kin. Table 1 provides a brief overview of the policies relating to kin caregivers in five states (California, Colorado, Illinois, New York, and Texas).22
Until recently, Illinois allowed all relative caregivers (including those relatives raising their children through informal family arrangements) to receive foster care payments.12 California policy allows for foster care subsidies to be paid to kinship caregivers whose foster children are AFDC-eligible—approximately 60% of the kinship care caseload. The remaining 40% of kinship foster parents typically receive welfare payments instead. The difference in monthly payments may be great, depending upon the number and ages of the children in care, and whether the kinship caregiver qualifies for welfare as an adult.
For instance, in 1996, California paid $345 per child per month for foster care provided to children up to age four, $375 for children aged five to eight, and $484 for youths aged 15 or more. So, for example, if siblings ages 8 and 16 were in foster care, their caregiver would receive $859 per month. In contrast, California's AFDC payment for one child was $293 per month, and only $479 for two children. Many states have lower welfare benefits, and there the difference between AFDC and the foster care subsidy is even greater. This disparity spawns concerns that the foster care payment system may act as an incentive for a troubled family to seek a formal agency-supervised placement with kin rather than sharing child-rearing responsibilities informally with the same relatives.5 To counteract that possibility while acknowledging the burden kin assume when taking in a child, Illinois recently created a special payment rate for kinship caregivers who are not licensed as foster care parents. That rate falls between the AFDC and the foster care payments.New Practice Issues
Because kinship foster care has expanded so rapidly, it has changed child welfare practice in important ways.23 Child welfare workers have learned to negotiate the complex family dynamics between parents and caregivers;19 they have developed new service strategies guided by family preservation principles;24 and they have expanded conventional notions of what constitutes a permanent home to include long-term foster care with kin.25 Nevertheless, many children in kinship foster care are treated inequitably by the child welfare services system.
Evidence from a number of sources suggests that kinship foster parents receive less support, fewer services, and less contact with child welfare workers than foster family parents receive.26-28 These differences are problematic because kin foster caregivers are less advantaged than nonkin caregivers to start with. Studies show that kin are, in general, older and less financially stable; they are more likely to be single parents, and they have less education and poorer health.26,27,29 These differences are evident in Table 2, which shows the characteristics of a sample of 600 kin and nonkin foster parents in California. To successfully manage when responsibility for raising several children of family members is thrust upon them, kin caregivers may need more support than is needed by their foster parent counterparts. Examples of the services that kinship foster parents seek are provided later in the article.
As kinship foster care grows rapidly across the nation, it bears close examination as a placement resource for children. The pages that follow describe child welfare's core principles and review the strengths and limitations of kinship placements in light of these fundamental values. The article explores the ways in which reliance on kin and nonkin foster care promotes or diminishes these values, and compares the outcomes for children in kinship foster care and foster family care.