Journal Issue: Protecting Children from Abuse and Neglect Volume 8 Number 1 Spring 1998
Jill Duerr Berrick
Policy Tensions Concerning Kinship Care
Reliance on kin as children's caregivers in the foster care system shows no sign of decline in most large states. Therefore, public policy and child welfare agencies should be responsive to this significant change in the structure of out-of-home care for children, and should seek opportunities to promote children's safety, support their families, and foster their legal permanence while they are placed with kin.Placement Preferences
To support families in their efforts to protect children, public policy should encourage kin placements for children whenever possible and appropriate. Preferences for kin placements can occur, however, either within or outside of the child welfare services system. As Table 1 shows, some states have turned to kin caregivers as a way of diverting children from the foster care system, by promoting the obligations of kin to care for children within the private sphere of the family. Other states have developed preferential policies for kin that draw upon that sense of kinship obligation, but include the kin home within the public sphere of the foster care system.4,5 Public policy regarding kinship care is challenging because of this key tension—it bridges areas of family privacy, family policy, and child welfare.Special Supports
Kinship foster care bears certain similarities to informal kinship caregiving. Some might argue, therefore, that government policy toward kin caregivers should be similar whether or not the child has been removed from home by child welfare authorities. If kinship foster care resembles informal, private family arrangements made outside of the child welfare services system, the state has little obligation to offer special services to these caregivers. Yet kinship caregivers have no absolute obligation to care for their relatives' children, and the state cannot compel them to rear their relatives. If one of the goals of public policy is to promote behaviors among citizens that might not otherwise occur, the development of special services and supports designed to assist the unique circumstances of kinship caregivers might be recommended.
Kinship foster care also resembles foster family care to the extent that the government holds expectations concerning the quality of care that will be provided to the child who is in state custody. If kinship foster care is viewed as an alternative foster care setting, one might argue that kin should receive the same services and supports as other foster parents,61 and be subject to the same standards and requirements.62 The tensions between images of kinship foster care as a family arrangement or as government-sponsored substitute care have implications for all the policies discussed here: placement, funding, services, and supports. Today, kinship foster care policy is a hybrid between family and foster care in many states. Efforts to clarify the government's role regarding extended family caregiving are needed to rationalize a fragmented system, and to give an equitable response to children who have been maltreated.Payment Policies
The Miller v. Youakim decision by the U.S. Supreme Court makes it clear that kinship foster parents who are fully licensed and trained should receive the same financial reimbursement as other foster parents for the support of their federally eligible relative children in out-of-home care. Yet those who view kinship foster care as an extension of informal kinship caregiving argue that the role of the state in financially supporting kin caregivers should be minimal.63 Financially needy caregivers rearing their relatives' children should, by this reasoning, be assisted in the same manner as all heads of households who are poor, through the cash assistance system or welfare. Alternatively, public policymakers who seek to encourage relative caregivers to step forward when children are in distress should consider the role that financial support can play in enabling them to assume this responsibility.20 Officials in Illinois have attempted to strike a balance between these perspectives by providing specialized payments to kin foster parents that exceed basic cash assistance rates but are not as generous as foster care payments.12