Home to the Urban InstituteKinship Care: Making the Most of a Valuable Resource




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Kinship Foster Care
An Ongoing, Yet Largely Uninformed Debate

Rob Geen

When public child welfare agencies find it necessary to remove children from their parents' homes due to abuse or neglect, these agencies seek to place children with foster parents. When the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 was passed, forming the basis of federal foster care policy, it was very rare for a child's relative to act as a foster parent. Today, child welfare agencies increasingly consider kin as the first placement choice when foster care is needed and kin are available and able to provide a safe home. Being separated from a parent, even an abusive or neglectful one, is traumatic for a child. By placing a child with someone he or she already knows, child welfare agencies hope to minimize this trauma.

Since the early 1980s, states' use of kin as foster parents has grown rapidly, yet very little information is available on how and when local child welfare agencies use kin as foster parents, how agencies' approach to kinship care differs from their approach to traditional foster care, and how local kinship care policies and practices vary across states. Thus, it has been difficult for federal and state policymakers, as well as advocates and practitioners, to evaluate how well kinship care ensures children's safety, promotes permanency in their living situation, and enhances their well-being—three basic goals of the child welfare system. Nonetheless, both federal and state governments continue to implement kinship care policies—both explicitly and implicitly.

Defining Kinship Care

In its broadest sense, kinship care is any living arrangement in which children live with neither of their parents but instead are cared for by a relative or someone with whom they have had a prior relationship. Note that the term kin is often used interchangeably with relative. However, many state child welfare agencies define kinship care to include persons beyond blood relatives—for example, godparents, family friends, or others with a strong emotional bond to a child (Jantz et al. 2002). Almost half of the states (24, including the District of Columbia) include only those related by blood, marriage, or adoption in their definition of kin. Almost as many states (22) define kin as those related beyond blood, marriage, or adoption. The remaining states (5) report having no definition of kin. The way states define kin is important, because all states treat kin in a different way than they treat non-kin, whether through preference, licensing, payment, and so on. In this book, the authors use the words kin and relative interchangeably, but they note when policies or practices for blood relatives differ from those for broader kin.

Kinship care arrangements are not a new phenomenon. Anthropologists have documented the role that extended families play in raising children in cultures and communities around the world (Korbin 1991; Young 1970). Extended family members and other persons with a bond to the family have been particularly important in African-American families dating back to the time of slavery when parents and children were often separated. In fact, the phrase kinship care was coined by Stack (1974) in work documenting the importance of kinship networks in the African-American community.

Traditionally, kinship care has been described as either "informal," meaning that such caregiving arrangements occur without the involvement of a child welfare agency, or "formal," meaning that kin act as foster parents for children in state custody. Unfortunately, the use of the terms informal and formal to describe the range of kinship care arrangements may be misleading and inaccurate. For example, referring to kinship caregiving outside the purview of the child welfare system as informal may incorrectly imply that such arrangements are short term or tenuous. Some informal kinship caregivers have legal custody of children through adoption or guardianship, and others have legal decision-making authority through a power of attorney. In short, some informal kinship care arrangements are more formal than others. Likewise, kinship care arrangements designated as "formal" vary in the extent to which they are publicly supported and monitored. Most earlier researchers have used formal kinship care to refer to arrangements in which children have been adjudicated as abused or neglected and placed in foster care with kin. However, child welfare may be involved in other kinship care placements. There are instances in which child welfare agencies help arrange the placement of a child with a relative but do not seek court action to obtain custody of the child. For example, during or after a child protective services investigation, a caseworker may advise a parent to place a child with a relative; both the parent and the relative know that if the parent refuses a "voluntary" kinship placement, the agency may petition the court to obtain custody of the child.

Given the limitations of the terms formal and informal, the authors in this book refer to all kinship care arrangements that occur without the child welfare agency's involvement as private kinship care and all kinship care arrangements that occur with child welfare contact as either kinship foster care (if the child is in state custody) or voluntary kinship care. As discussed at length in later chapters, kinship foster care may or may not be licensed in the same way as traditional non-kin foster care. And voluntary kinship care arrangements may or may not receive any on-going supervision from child welfare authorities or the juvenile court.

Children in Kinship Care

In 2002, approximately 2.3 million children lived with relatives without a parent present in the home.1 The vast majority of these children, approximately 1.8 million, were in private kinship care. Between the periods 1983-85 and 1992-93,2 the number of children in private kinship care grew slightly faster than the number of children in the United States as a whole—8.4 versus 6.6 percent (Harden, Clark, and Maguire 1997). Many researchers argue that during this period such social ills as increased homelessness, drug and alcohol abuse, juvenile delinquency, HIV/AIDS, and child abuse and neglect placed great pressure on the nuclear family and caused this increase (Hornby, Zeller, and Karraker 1996; Spar 1993). Since 1994, however, both the number and prevalence of children in private kinship care appear to have declined slightly.3

In contrast, available evidence suggests that kinship foster care increased substantially during the late 1980s and early 1990s (Boots and Geen 1999; Harden et al. 1997; Kusserow 1992). Based on data from 25 states, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that the proportion of all children in state custody placed with kin increased from 18 percent in 1986 to 31 percent in 1990 (Kusserow 1992). Moreover, there is evidence that kinship care continued to increase through 1993 in California, Illinois, and New York, the three states that accounted for the great majority of the 1986-90 growth (Harden et al. 1997).

Several factors contributed to the growth in kinship foster care. While the number of children requiring placement outside the home increased (the foster care population doubled between 1983 and 1998), the number of non-kin foster parents declined. In addition, child welfare agencies developed a more positive attitude toward the use of kin as foster parents. By 1996, almost all states had policies giving family members preference when children required placement (Boots and Geen 1999). Finally, several federal and state court rulings have recognized the rights of relatives to act as foster parents and to be compensated financially for doing so.

In some states, the proportion of children in kinship care is far higher than the national average. For example, in California and Illinois, kinship care accounts for 43 percent and 47 percent of the caseloads, respectively (Needell et al. 2001; Wulczyn and Hislop 2001). While kinship care is unevenly used across the states, it continues to be the placement of choice for states with some of the highest caseloads in the country; it is also common in large urban centers, where placement rates are high and ethnic diversity prevails (Wulczyn, Brunner, and Goerge 1997).

Available data suggest that states' use of kinship foster care has leveled off. From March 1998 to September 2001, the portion of children in out-of-home care placed with relatives declined from 29 percent to 24 percent, and the number of children in kinship foster care decreased from 151,000 to 131,000. Since data show that children in kinship care tend to remain in out-of-home care longer than children placed in non-kin settings, the proportion of children entering foster care who are placed with kin is lower than this. Based on data from 25 states, only 20 percent of children entering foster care between April and September 1997 and still in placement on September 30, 1997, were in kinship care (HHS 2003).

It is important to note that the national data above on kinship care may underestimate the true number of foster children placed with kin. Some states do not include in their kinship care data children placed with kin who are not licensed or who do not receive foster care payments. At the same time, some states cannot differentiate kin who have become licensed as foster parents from non-kin foster parents, especially when the kin are not related by blood to the children in their care. Data from the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF), a nationally representative household survey, suggests that the number of children in kinship foster care may be as high as 200,000 (Ehrle and Geen 2002a).

The apparent leveling off of states' use of kin as foster parents does not necessarily mean that states are not seeking out kin, but instead may be using kin in different ways. Almost all states report giving preference to and actively seeking out kin when children cannot remain with their biological parents (Jantz et al. 2002). However, it appears that child welfare agencies are frequently using kin as an alternative to foster care (i.e., voluntary kinship care). NSAF was also the first national survey to estimate the number of children in voluntary kinship care. According to NSAF data, approximately 285,000 children were living with relatives in 1997 as a result of child welfare involvement but were not in the custody of the state (Ehrle, Geen, and Clark 2001). While researchers had previously identified this group (Hornby, Zeller, and Karraker 1996; Takas 1992), this estimate was considerably higher than previously believed.

Several studies have identified differences between children in kin and non-kin arrangements in terms of their age, race or ethnicity, and other background characteristics.4 Prior research has shown that children in kinship foster care are younger than children in non-kin foster care (Berrick, Needell, and Barth 1995; Chipungu et al. 1998; Cook and Ciarico 1998; Dubowitz, Feigelman, and Zuravin 1993; Iglehart 1994; Landsverk et al. 1996; LeProhn and Pecora 1994). These children are far more likely to be black than children in non-kin foster care (Berrick et al. 1995; Bonecutter and Gleeson 1997; Cook and Ciarico 1998; Dubowitz 1990; Grogan-Kaylor 1996; Iglehart 1994; Landsverk et al. 1996; Scannapieco, Hegar, and McAlpine 1997). For example, one study found that 60 percent of children in kinship foster care were African American, compared with 45 percent of children in non-kin foster care (Cook and Ciarico 1998). There appear to be no significant differences between the proportion of kin and non-kin foster children who are Hispanic5 (Chipungu et al. 1998; Cook and Ciarico 1998). In addition, kinship care appears to be far more common in the South than in other regions (Harden et al. 1997).

Children in kinship care are also more likely than non-kin foster children to have been removed from their parents' homes due to abuse or neglect as opposed to other family problems, such as a parent-child conflict or behavioral problems (Cook and Ciarico 1998). Several small-scale studies have also found that kinship care children are more likely than children in non-kin foster care to be removed due to neglect as opposed to other forms of maltreatment (Gleeson, Bonecutter, and Altshuler 1995; Grogan-Kaylor 1996; Iglehart 1994; Landsverk et al. 1996).

Children in kinship care are more likely to come from homes in which the birth parents had a drug or alcohol problem (AFCARS 1998; Altshuler 1998; Beeman et al. 1996; Benedict, Zuravin, and Stallings 1996; Cook and Ciarico 1998; Gleeson et al. 1995). In addition, it appears that the birth parents of kinship care children are more likely to be young and never married than the birth parents of children in non-kin foster care (Altshuler 1998; Cook and Ciarico 1998).

Kinship Foster Parents

Kinship foster parents differ from non-kin foster parents in several important ways. Almost all of these differences illustrate that kinship foster parents face numerous challenges that most non-kin foster parents do not encounter. Moreover, these challenges suggest that substantial numbers of children in kinship foster care face various socio-economic risks to their healthy development and illustrate the supports needed by kinship foster parents (Ehrle, Geen, and Clark 2001).

Almost all the studies that have collected data on the income of kinship caregivers have found that they are significantly poorer than non-kin foster parents (Barth et al. 1994; Berrick, Barth, and Needell 1994; Brooks and Barth 1998; Chipungu et al. 1998; Ehrle and Geen 2002b; Gebel 1996; Harden et al. 1997; LeProhn 1994; Zimmerman et al. 1998). For example, one study found that 39 percent of children in kinship foster care live in households with income below the federal poverty level, compared with 13 percent of children in non-kin foster care (Ehrle and Geen 2002b).

A few key factors may contribute to these caregivers' poverty. First, kinship caregivers have less formal education than non-kin caregivers (Barth et al. 1994; Beeman et al. 1996; Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998; Gebel 1996; LeProhn 1994; Zimmerman et al. 1998). Approximately 32 percent of children in kinship foster care live with a caregiver who has less than a high school education, compared with only 9 percent of children in non-kin foster care (Ehrle and Geen 2002b). Second, kinship caregivers appear to be much more likely than non-kin foster parents to be single (Barth et al. 1994; Bonecutter and Gleeson 1997; Chipungu and Everett 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998; Dubowitz 1990; Gaudin and Sutphen 1993; Gebel 1996; LeProhn 1994; Pecora, LeProhn, and Nasuti 1999; Scannapieco et al. 1997). Between 48 and 62 percent of kinship foster parents are single, compared with 21 to 37 percent of non-kin foster parents (Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998; Gebel 1996; LeProhn 1994). Third, kinship caregivers appear to be more likely to care for large sibling groups, although there is no difference in the average number of foster children in kinship care compared with non-kin foster homes (Berrick et al. 1994).

Kinship caregivers also tend to be older than non-kin foster parents, with a sizable difference in the number of caregivers over 60 years of age (Barth et al. 1994; Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998; Davis et al. 1996; Gaudin and Sutphen 1993; Gebel 1996; Harden et al. 1997; LeProhn 1994). Between 15 and 21 percent of kinship foster parents are over age 60, compared with less than 9 percent of non-kin foster parents (Chipungu et al. 1998; Gebel 1996). These differences are not surprising, given the fact that kin foster parents are most often the grandparents of the children in their care (Brooks and Barth 1998; Dubowitz 1990; Ehrle and Geen 2002b; Gebel 1996; Gleeson et al. 1995; Harden et al. 1997; LeProhn 1994; Link 1996; Testa 1999). Studies have also shown that kinship caregivers are more likely to report being in poorer health than non-kin foster parents (Barth et al. 1994; Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998), which may be due to their older age. It could be very challenging for an older caregiver in poor health to adequately care for a young child.

The research on kinship caregivers' employment is conflicting. Some studies have found that kinship caregivers are more likely to be employed than non-kin foster parents (Barth et al. 1994; Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998) and to be employed full-time (Barth et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998). In contrast, other studies have found that kin are less likely to be employed or employed full-time (Beeman et al. 1996; Gebel 1996). Employment clearly affects the time a caregiver has available to spend with the child, but it may also affect the resources a caregiver can offer to the child.

In addition to the socioeconomic challenges that many kin foster parents face, they, unlike non-kin foster parents, usually receive little, if any, advanced preparation in assuming their role as caregivers. They may not have time to prepare mentally for their new roles and may not have adequate space, furniture (e.g., a crib), or other child-related necessities (such as toys or a car seat). Since most kinship caregivers are grandparents, they may not have had parenting duties for some time and may be apprehensive about raising a child at this stage in their lives.

Few researchers have examined the impact of caregiving on kin. Those that have studied this issue have focused on differences between custodial and noncustodial grandparents. Solomon and Marx (2000) found that 45 percent of custodial grandparents reported being in fair to poor physical health, compared with 24 percent of noncustodial grandparents. Moreover, by most measures, the emotional health and life satisfaction of custodial grandparents is lower than that of their noncustodial counterparts. Minkler, Roe, and Price (1992) found that one-third of their sample of 72 African-American grandmothers indicated that their health had worsened since beginning caregiving and many directly attributed this to their caregiving responsibilities. Another study found that caregiving was directly associated with high levels of depression among grandparent caregivers (Minkler et al. 2000).

While most of the research on kin caregiving has focused on the negative effects that caregiving may have on kin, some researchers have explored the positive rewards from this experience. Caregiving can provide a meaningful role for kin, leading them to feel more useful and productive (Emick and Hayslip 1996). Caring for a child may also be intrinsically rewarding (Giarrusso et al. 1996).

The Evolution of Federal and State Policies

Federal policies affecting kinship caregivers fall under the domain of both income assistance and child welfare. Federal income assistance policies have acknowledged the role of kin caregivers, while federal child welfare policies have historically been vague regarding the financial support of kin. With limited federal guidance and sometimes-unclear congressional intent, states' child welfare policies have developed in ways that treat kinship foster care differently from non-kin foster care.

Federal Policy Development

An early income assistance policy that affected kin was the 1950 amendment to the Social Security Act. It allowed for relatives, if eligible, to receive payment for themselves and the children they were caring for under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, thus treating relatives like members of the nuclear family. However, if relatives were not eligible for assistance, they could receive payments for the child only. In this second scenario, because relatives were not legally required to care for the child, the relatives were not considered part of the assistance unit. Under current federal policy, states can provide Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) child-only grants to any relative caring for a child in a kinship care arrangement, regardless of the relative's income, provided that the relative meets the state's TANF definition of a relative caretaker.6

In the child welfare policy area, amendments to Title IV of the Social Security Act in 1962 authorized federally reimbursed payments to licensed foster parents. However, at that time, most kinship caregivers were kept out of the child welfare system and did not become licensed foster parents or receive foster care payments. Most kinship caregivers were referred to income assistance programs for support. However, welfare grants were and are smaller than foster care payments, sometimes significantly, depending on the state as well as the number of children being cared for (Boots and Geen 1999).

In 1979, the Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Youakim that relative foster parents caring for children who are eligible for federally reimbursed foster care payments (i.e., Title IV-E-eligible) are entitled to the same federal benefits as non-relative foster parents if they meet the same licensing standards. However, the case did not address what support should be provided to kin caring for children who are not eligible for federal foster care funds, or to those kin who do not meet certain state foster care licensing requirements.

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 and the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act of 1980 were viewed as giving tacit preference to relative foster parents. The Indian Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272) stated that Native American children in foster care should be placed near their home and with their extended family if possible. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act required that when placing children in foster care, the state should use the "least restrictive, most family-like setting available in close proximity to the parent's home, consistent with the best interests and special needs of the child." The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (P.L. 104-193)—legislation that significantly altered the federal cash assistance program—also addressed kinship care, requiring states to "consider giving preference to an adult relative over a non-related caregiver when determining a placement for a child, provided that the relative caregiver meets all relevant State child protection standards."

Recent federal child welfare policy also promotes kinship placements. In 1997, concerned about the length of time children spent in foster care, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA). While promoting more timely permanency for all children, the act acknowledges the unique circumstances of kinship care and permits states to treat kinship care and non-kin foster children differently. ASFA requires states to seek termination of parental rights (TPR) after a child has been in foster care for 15 of 22 consecutive months. However, ASFA allows states to extend this time frame if "the child is being cared for by a relative." ASFA is also the first federal legislation to address kinship care as a potential permanent placement by indicating that "a fit and willing relative" could provide a "planned permanent living arrangement."

While each state sets its own foster care licensing standards, the federal government provides financial reimbursement to states to cover certain costs associated with foster care placements. There are certain minimum procedural guidelines that states must meet to receive financial reimbursement. ASFA clarified conditions under which the federal government would provide financial reimbursement. The Act, and the ASFA final rule of January 2000 that documented how the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) would implement the Act, included a number of provisions that affected or clarified the federal reimbursement of foster care payments made to children placed with kin. States may not collect federal reimbursement for all kin caring for IV-E-eligible children. Instead, "relatives must meet the same licensing/ approval standards as non-relative foster family homes." Waivers for certain licensing standards may only be issued on a case-by-case basis, not for kin as a group. No waivers can be granted for safety issues. In addition, the final rule prohibits states from claiming IV-E reimbursement for provisionally licensed or emergency placement kin homes.

While the federal government will not reimburse states for foster care payments made to kin who are not licensed the same as non-relative foster homes, neither ASFA nor the final rule prohibit states from assessing kin differently than non-kin. Some argue that kinship care is a unique situation and should not be held to the same standards as non-kin placements. Traditional foster care requirements, especially those not related to safety, may be irrelevant in a kinship care placement. The potential benefits of living with a family member or close family friend may outweigh the need for safety checks, such as space requirements. However, safety is the most important concern to child welfare agencies, which may be reluctant to waive requirements or hold kin to less stringent standards than those non-kin foster parents must meet.

The cumulative impact of the ASFA final rule is that kin may be less likely to receive foster care payments and may be forced to make do with the significantly less generous support provided by TANF child-only grants. Given the financial pressures that many kin already experience, these changes may make fewer kin able to care for a child needing placement.

State Kinship Care Policies

States have historically had considerable flexibility in determining how to assess and pay kinship caregivers. While the federal government has carefully regulated states' foster care practices and set guidelines for the types of non-kin foster families that may receive federal reimbursement, until recently it remained silent on how states may treat kin differently from non-kin foster parents. With limited federal guidance, state kinship care policies have evolved in such a way that there is significant variation in the ways in which states assess and support kinship caregivers, and many states have multiple licensing or approval options for kin.

In 1993, Gleeson and Craig were among the first to examine the differences among state kinship care policies. As part of their study, they requested written documentation of kinship care policies, obtaining responses from 32 states. They found that while many states use the same approval standards for kin as for non-kin foster parents, 17 states had developed approval standards specifically for kin or waived certain non-kin foster care requirements. Gleeson and Craig also found a link between the assessment and payment of kin, reporting that "some states use foster home licensing standards as criteria for whether a relative home will be eligible for foster care boarding rates, but not as a criteria for child safety" (1994, 18). Sixteen of the 32 states' documents stated that relatives could receive foster care payments if they met the foster home licensing or relative approval standards.

In 1997, 1999, and 2001, the Urban Institute conducted national surveys of states' kinship care policies. These surveys found that while state policies were still evolving (27 states changed their licensing policies between 1999 and 2001), most states provided flexibility to allow kin to act as foster parents (Jantz et al. 2002). Only 15 states required kin to meet all the same licensing criteria as non-kin foster parents. All but nine states would place children with kin before they meet all of the assessment criteria required of them, sometimes referred to as provisional licensing or approval.

Because kin may be unable or choose not to be licensed as foster parents, they may not be eligible to receive monthly foster care payments on behalf of the children in their care. In 26 states, at least some kin are not eligible to receive foster care payments (Jantz et al. 2002). A few states (six) provide state-funded foster care payments to kin who meet standards that are different from non-kin foster parents, which makes these states ineligible for federal reimbursement of the payments.

Most states also offer kin flexibility in permanency planning. Almost all states (43) have implemented the ASFA option and allow children to remain in long-term foster care with kin under certain circumstances. In addition, 35 states offer subsidies to kin who are not interested in adopting but are willing to become permanent legal guardians.

Services for Families

Child welfare agencies are responsible for ensuring that the children they place in foster care are cared for appropriately. Agencies may provide or refer children for a variety of services to meet their needs, including services that address issues arising from the abuse or neglect the children have suffered. Agencies also provide a variety of supports to foster care parents in their effort to care for children.

While state policies indicate that kin are generally eligible to receive the same services as non-kin foster parents, past research has clearly shown that in practice, kin foster parents and the children in their care receive fewer services. Kin are offered and request fewer services (Barth et al. 1994; Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu and Everett 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998; Cook and Ciarico 1998).

Experts have offered several explanations for these disparities. These variations may reflect differences in the service needs of kin and non-kin foster parents. Child welfare caseworkers may also treat kin and non-kin foster parents differently. A few studies have shown that kin foster parents were less likely to receive services they requested (Chipungu et al. 1998; LeProhn and Pecora 1994).

Kin also fail to receive the assistance they are eligible for from non-child welfare agencies. While all kin who do not receive foster care payments from the child welfare agency are eligible to receive TANF assistance from an income assistance agency,7 many fail to receive either TANF or foster care payments. Similarly, many kin who are eligible for assistance fail to receive Medicaid health insurance coverage for the children in their care, food stamps, child care subsidies, or housing assistance (Ehrle and Geen 2002a).

At the same time, many states have recently developed programs to better meet the needs of kinship caregivers, designed as alternatives to either TANF or foster care programs (Geen et al. 2001). Some of these programs provide greater financial assistance than kin would otherwise be eligible to receive through TANF; some offer a range of supportive services, such as child or respite care, support groups, education and mentoring services, transportation, and recreation; and others seek to link kin to available community resources.

The Ongoing Debate

In spite of explicit federal and state preference for kinship care and states' continued heavy reliance on kin as foster parents, kinship care remains a field of policy and practice that is mired in controversy and complexity. Policymakers, for example, are still ambivalent about the appropriate responsibilities of kin caring for children in the child welfare system. Whether kin should play a role in child welfare that corresponds to that of traditional foster parents, or whether they should be considered family providing informal supports (Berrick and Needell 1999; Testa 2001) remains a tension that is yet to be resolved. This tension plays out in debates about how child welfare agencies should financially support kin, as well as in how policymakers assess how well kinship care meets the child welfare goals of safety, permanency, and well-being (Shlonsky and Berrick 2001). Moreover, discussions about kinship care practice, as well as child welfare practices more generally, are intertwined with the issues of race and class. Finally, our knowledge of kinship foster care is severely limited; much of the existing research is either narrow in focus or lacking in methodological rigor.


Some may argue that kin should not be paid for caring for a related child because such care is part of a family's responsibility. Moreover, some experts have argued that the higher foster care payment rates (compared with TANF) may provide an incentive for private kinship caregivers to become part of the child welfare system (Berrick, Minkler, and Needell 1999; Johnson 1994). These arguments, however, view kinship care from the perspective of the caregiver rather than that of the maltreated child. Indeed, Testa and Slack (2002) found that placement stability is enhanced when kinship caregivers receive the full foster care subsidy. Geen and Berrick (2002) suggest that arguments concerning kinship care payments should turn on government's responsibility for children in state custody rather than on the licensing status or family ties between caregiver and child. They argue that states assume the same level of responsibility for children in state custody regardless of where a child is placed and that it makes no sense for states to provide less financial assistance on behalf of a child in kinship care solely because the caregiver is unable to meet certain licensing criteria.

The ASFA final rule also prohibits kin who are provisionally licensed from receiving federally reimbursed foster care payments. Almost all kinship caregivers are provisionally licensed, since they typically begin caring for a related child with little advance warning. Since the licensing process in many states takes six months or more, kin may lose considerable financial assistance by being denied foster care and supplemental payments until they are licensed.

At the same time, the ASFA final rule allows states, under certain circumstances, to recoup foster care expenses for children who were already living with kin when child welfare became involved. These placements are often called constructive or paper removals, since the child is not physically removed from the home but taken into state custody. Child welfare agencies face a difficult decision in determining the circumstances under which they should take a child into custody, particularly when the child may already be in a safe and stable home. If only 15 percent of the children living in private kinship care arrangements were brought into child welfare systems, the kinship foster care population would double. And Illinois's experience has taught us that making foster care payments available to private kin can lead to significant increases in kinship foster care (Testa 1997).

A related concern centers on when it might be appropriate for child welfare agencies to divert children from the foster care system by using voluntary kinship care placements. The aforementioned issues relating to equity in financial assistance apply in these cases, but just as important, these children may effectively be excluded from public agency supervision, from the specialized health and mental health and school-related services that might be available through foster care, and their parents are denied the services they may need in order to effectively reunify with their children. At the same time, voluntary kinship care placements may benefit children and caregivers by preventing the stigma and intrusion of child welfare system and juvenile court involvement. Not a single study to date has examined voluntary kinship care placements in depth.


Kinship care advocates have had to fight for years to overcome the negative perception among many child welfare workers and administrators that "the apple does not fall far from the tree"—in other words, parents who are abusive were probably abused themselves. Persons who subscribe to this notion suspect that kin abused the parent whose child is being removed by a child welfare agency. While some studies lend credence to the theory of an intergenerational cycle of abuse, it appears that most children in kinship care are placed there because of parental neglect rather than abuse (Gleeson et al. 1995; Grogan-Kaylor 1996; Iglehart 1994; Landsverk et al. 1996). Despite this fundamental concern, few studies have directly assessed the safety of kinship care placements. Two studies that compared the rate of abuse by kin and non-kin foster parents had conflicting results, with one finding children in kinship care more likely to suffer abuse (Dubowitz, Feigelman, and Zuravin 1993) and the other finding them less likely to suffer abuse (Zuravin, Benedict, and Somerfield 1993).

Concern about the safety of kinship care placements led HHS in the ASFA final rule to mandate that "relatives must meet the same licensing standards as non-relative family foster homes" for states to receive federal foster care reimbursement. HHS notes that "given the emphasis in ASFA on child safety ... we believe that it is incumbent upon us, as part of our oversight responsibilities, to fully implement the licensing and safety requirements specified in the statute." However, it seems hypocritical for federal policy to suggest that kin must be licensed for states to receive federal reimbursement because of safety concerns, but not require states to license those kinship care homes for which they do not seek federal reimbursement. Moreover, the federal government allows states great flexibility in setting foster care home licensing standards, and the stringency in standards varies greatly among states. Thus, kin meeting a licensing standard in one state may actually meet more stringent standards than licensed foster parents in another state.

In addition to the policy conundrums associated with kin care, practitioners encounter many challenges in their work with kin as they struggle to respect both kin as the principal decisionmakers in children's lives and their own professional judgment about the best interests of children (Gleeson and Hairston 1999). Several studies have shown that child welfare workers tend to supervise kinship care families less closely than non-kin foster families (Beeman et al. 1996; Berrick et al. 1994). Concerns have also been raised because studies have shown birth parent visitation of children in kinship care is often unsupervised and thus parents may have inappropriate access to children they have abused or neglected (Barth et al. 1994; Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998).


The new federal law also reflects ambivalence about kin in its policy approach to permanency. Whereas ASFA clearly encourages permanency (i.e., adoption or legal guardianship) for children in non-kin care who cannot be reunified and specifically disallows long-term foster care for non-kin, it includes explicit provisions for long-term care for children placed with relatives. Indeed, placement stability is much greater for children placed with kin than with non-kin (Beeman et al. 1996; Benedict et al. 1996; Berrick 1998; Cook and Ciarico 1998; Courtney and Needell 1997), but it is hardly guaranteed, and according to recent work by Testa (2001), extended kinship care placements may be as likely to break down as long-term placements with non-kin.

Conflicting views about the potential for permanency with kin have developed, in part, because of child welfare workers' attitudes and expectations (Beeman and Boisen 1999; Berrick, Needell, and Barth 1999), presumptions about the role of blood and culture in some communities (Burnette 1997), and some research suggesting that kin may be disinclined to adopt (Gleeson 1999; Thornton 1991). More recent work by Testa (in press; Testa et al. 1996) suggests that many kin can and will adopt if they are provided accurate information and if they are reassured about ongoing payment subsidies, the continued role of birth parents in the lives of children, and the option to leave children's birth names intact.

Still, concerns remain about whether placement with relatives dampens birth parents' efforts toward reunification. Children remain in kin placements for relatively long periods and are less likely to be reunified with their parents (Benedict and White 1991; Berrick et al. 1995; Chipungu et al. 1998; Courtney 1994; Testa 1997). Testa and Slack (2002) examined reunification rates for children in kin care and found that—not unlike findings for children in non-kin care (Hess 1987)—regular visitation and parents' active efforts toward reunification are strongly associated with the child's return home. While critics of ASFA have suggested that the new, shortened time frames available for permanency may reduce opportunities for reunification for all children (whether in kin or non-kin care), the effects for children in kinship care may be especially profound since they are less likely than children in non-kin care to have moved toward reunification within the allotted 12-month period.


Despite the challenges faced by kin caregivers, advocates of kinship care argue that children fare better when placed with relatives. Since children are more likely to be familiar with a kin caregiver, many experts suggest that these placements are less traumatic and disruptive for children than placements with non-kin (Gleeson and Craig 1994; Johnson 1994; Zwas 1993). Many argue that placement with kin is less psychologically harmful to children than placement with strangers (National Commission on Family Foster Care 1991). Further, studies of children's experiences in care suggest that the vast majority of children feel "loved" by their kin caregivers and "happy" with their living arrangements (Wilson and Conroy 1999).

In addition, children may maintain a stronger family bond in kinship foster care because they are more likely to be placed with siblings than are children in non-kin foster care (Berrick et al. 1994; Gleeson, O'Donnell, and Bonecutter 1997; Testa and Rolock 1999). Kinship foster care also helps children maintain a connection with their community—research has indicated that they are more frequently placed close to the homes from which they were removed (DiLeonardi, n.d.; Testa 1997; Testa and Rolock 1999). In addition, kinship foster care helps maintain family continuity. Children in kinship foster care have much more frequent and consistent contact with both birth parents and siblings than do children in non-kin foster care (Barth et al. 1994; Berrick et al. 1994; Chipungu et al. 1998; Davis, Landsverk et al. 1996; GAO 1999; LeProhn and Pecora 1994). Prior research has also shown that children in kinship foster care are significantly less likely than children in non-kin foster care to experience multiple placements (Beeman et al. 1996; Benedict et al. 1996; Berrick et al. 1995; Chipungu et al. 1998; Courtney and Needell 1997; Goerge 1990; Iglehart 1994; LeProhn and Pecora 1994; Zimmerman et al. 1998).

One of the only studies examining outcomes from kinship care (Benedict et al. 1996) suggested that as young adults, children placed with kin do as well as children placed in non-kin family foster care. The study only included kin providers licensed as foster parents, however, so the study is of limited utility, given the diversity of kinship foster care arrangements. A larger body of literature has developed to examine children's health and mental health while in kin care (Dubowitz et al. 1994; Sawyer and Dubowitz 1994). These studies all point to rough comparability between children in both settings. Shore et al. (2002) found that children in kin and non-kin care have rates of internalized and externalized behavior problems that are higher than rates for the general population, but that there are few differences in behavior problems between children in kin and non-kin care. Because all of the studies to date examine children's behavior while in care, issues remain as to whether the similarities we see are largely due to patterns of behavior associated with out-of-home care, or whether children present with similar problems at initial placement.

Race and Class

Issues of race and class have been and continue to be intertwined with child welfare and kinship care policy and practices. Nationally, African-American children are overrepresented in reports of abuse or neglect and in the number of children living in foster care (Leashore, McMurray, and Bailey 1997). Further, the majority of children living in kinship care arrangements are children of color. Thus, policies that affect families in the child welfare system, in kinship care, or both have an especially strong impact on African-American families. Many researchers have argued that child welfare practices do not reflect the cultural norms of minority groups and that changes in child welfare policies, especially those related to kinship care, "should be based on a deliberate and conscious recognition of the cultural patterns of various racial and ethnic groups" (Everett, Chipungu, and Leashore 1997). When looking at race and kinship care, it is important to consider the argument that "African Americans, for example, have relied on extended family and other informal systems of care not only because these informal systems are cultural strengths, but because African-American children for many years were excluded from public and private sector child welfare programs" (Bonecutter and Gleeson 1997).

Issues of race and class also play out in the values surrounding kinship definitions, in determining whether a potential kin caregiver is appropriate for an abused or neglected child, and in deciding what permanency options are appropriate for children in kinship care. It can be argued, for example, that "a lack of understanding of family as defined by non-Western culture has created most of the current debate over what role, if any, kinship care should have in child welfare. The extended family structure has been viewed as a variant family form because its structure is different from what has traditionally been considered the ideal structure of the nuclear family" (Johnson 1994). Moreover, many observers argue that current foster parent home licensing criteria, such as the number of rooms in the foster parent's home (which some states waive for kin), are not related to safety or quality of care but instead reflect middle-class values regarding proper homes (Kinship Care Advisory Panel 1998). Similarly, while the child welfare system has traditionally considered permanence to be either reunification or adoption, reunification is not always possible, and adoption may not be consistent with the values of some communities. In Native American communities, for example, the legal status afforded by adoption has little relevance or meaning. Instead, "the responsibility to assume care of relatives' children was both implied and expressly stated in the oral traditions and spiritual teachings of most tribes" (Johnson 1994).

Limits of Existing Research

This chapter has attempted to introduce the topic of kinship foster care by presenting a summary of the existing research. In addition to the obvious research gaps, it is important to understand that much of the research that is presented suffers from methodological limitations that raise questions about the generalizability of the findings. Many of the studies cited are based on small, idiosyncratic samples or surveys with low response rates. Almost all of the studies cited are based on bivariate analyses, addressing the relationship between a particular type of foster care and a variety of characteristics and experiences of families and children, based on point-in-time data. These analyses do not take into account the multitude of differences before placement that might influence these characteristics and experiences. Moreover, studies generally have not taken into account differences in state kinship care policies and practices that may affect comparison with other studies. Additional limitations and a discussion of research gaps are presented at greater length in chapter 9.

Purpose and Overview of the Book

While a great deal of information has been collected about the characteristics of kinship care children and foster parents as well as federal and state kinship care policies, little research has focused on "frontline" kinship care practices. This book seeks to fill this void. Using results from a study involving 96 focus groups of child welfare workers and kinship caregivers, in addition to interviews with local administrators, advocates, and service providers (a detailed description of the study is included in the appendix), it describes frontline kinship care practices and provides an in-depth understanding of how and why child welfare agencies approach kin and non-kin foster care differently.

The following chapters present the results of intensive case studies conducted by the Urban Institute of local kinship care policies and frontline practices in 13 locations in four states during the spring and summer of 2001. The case study sites included Jefferson (Birmingham), Mobile, and Talladega counties in Alabama; Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Clara (San Jose), and Santa Cruz counties in California; Bridgeport, Hartford, and Torrington municipalities in Connecticut; and Lake (Gary), LaPorte, and Marion (Indianapolis) counties in Indiana. Four states with different state policies for licensing and paying kinship foster parents were purposely selected. In each state, sites that placed large numbers of children in kinship foster care were chosen. These sites were the larger, more urban counties in the states. In addition, in each state researchers selected one rural county or municipality (Talladega, Santa Cruz, Torrington, and LaPorte) to assess whether kinship care practices might be different in these communities.

In each of the 13 study sites, we interviewed child welfare administrators and/or court personnel or judges and conducted focus groups with child welfare supervisors, caseworkers, and kinship caregivers. In all, we conducted 41 focus groups with 235 caseworkers and 30 focus groups with 137 supervisors. In addition, we conducted 25 focus groups with 157 kinship caregivers. All focus groups were recorded and the audiotapes were transcribed. The transcribed notes from the focus groups, as well as notes from the other interviews, were coded for analysis using Nud*ist content analysis software. Direct quotes from administrators, workers, and caregivers included in this book were selected to be representative of the opinions voiced. Moreover, we present caseworker opinions and caregivers' experiences based on their perspective. Thus, the information they provided about such things as eligibility for services or agency procedures may not be accurate, but it is what they believe to be true.

The study has a number of additional limitations that limit the generalizability of the results. The samples of workers and kinship caregivers participating in the focus group, while large and varied, were not necessarily representative of the jurisdictions in which the study collected data, and certainly not representative of the nation as a whole. All interviews and focus groups were conducted in English, so the number of Hispanic kinship caregivers that participated was less than we would expect had groups also been held in Spanish. In only a few locations was child care made available, which may have affected participation in the focus groups. Most of the focus groups were held at child welfare agency offices, which may have limited respondents' comfort in providing candid comments. The rural sites selected for the study were all relatively close to urban areas and thus are not representative of all rural areas. Data collection focused on worker and caregiver perceptions; findings were not validated with empirical evidence.

The book is organized chronologically in terms of child welfare involvement. Thus, chapter 2 focuses on agency efforts to identify and recruit kin to act as foster parents when the agency determines that a child cannot remain in his or her parents' home. The chapter examines how local child welfare agencies interpret the federal and state policy that they should give preference to relatives over non-relatives when a child must be placed in foster care. Chapter 2 also assesses how and when child welfare workers actively seek out relatives to be foster parents, how they choose a relative to act as a foster parent when multiple relatives come forward to care for a child, and the extent to which the desires of the child and the birth parent affect this decision. Chapter 3 examines how local child welfare agencies assess kin before placing a child in their care and how this assessment differs from the licensing of non-kin foster parents. Because financial assistance provided to kin is intimately linked with licensing procedures, this chapter also examines the payments that kin may receive.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 examine agency practices once a child has been placed with kin. Chapter 4 examines how well kin understand what is expected of them as foster parents, as well as the role of the child welfare agency and court. This chapter describes how caseworker supervision of kin and non-kin foster parents differs and why. Chapter 4 also documents how birth parent visitation is different when children are placed with kin instead of non-kin foster parents. Chapter 5 compares the service needs of kin and non-kin foster parents and children, documents and explains why kin are offered and request fewer services, and identifies barriers kin face in gaining access to services. Chapter 6 examines the different way that local agencies approach permanency planning when children are in kin rather than non-kin foster care. This chapter assesses the impact of ASFA on permanency planning practices, documents local agency efforts to increase adoptions by kin, and identifies reasons why kin may not want to adopt, including financial disincentives created by local policies.

Chapter 7 explores child welfare agencies' use of voluntary kinship care. It identifies factors caseworkers consider in deciding whether to help arrange voluntary placements and how agency staff members assess, monitor, and support these placements. This chapter also describes how child welfare agencies respond when private kin seek out assistance.

Chapter 8 offers the experiences of 25 kinship foster parents. It seeks to convey the passion with which kin spoke about how their caregiving affected, and was affected by, larger family issues, the issues faced by the children in their care, their own issues and challenges, and their interaction with the child welfare agency and the courts.

Chapter 9 concludes by summarizing the findings from the book; providing recommendations for policy, program development, caseworker training, and kinship caregiver training; and identifying issues for future research.


1. Urban Institute analysis of 2002 National Survey of America's Families.

2. Census Bureau Current Population Survey (CPS) data. Data are provided based on two- or three-year averages because the number of children in kinship care in a single year's CPS sample is relatively small and provides unreliable estimates. In addition, because of the introduction of improved data collection and processing procedures, data before 1994 are not comparable with later years.

3. According to Urban Institute analysis of Current Population Survey data, the number of children in kinship care declined from an average of 2.16 million in 1995-97 to an average of 2.14 million in 1998-2000 and the proportion declined from 3.05 to 2.98 percent.

4. There are no significant differences in gender between kinship care and non-kin foster care children (Beeman et al. 1996; Berrick et al. 1994; Dubowitz et al. 1993; Harden et al. 1997; Iglehart 1994; LeProhn and Pecora 1994).

5. Data on other ethnic groups are not available.

6. Under AFDC, relatives were entitled to child-only payments. Under TANF, states are not obligated to provide assistance to kinship caregivers, although currently all states except Wisconsin provide payments to all relative caregivers who seek assistance. Wisconsin's Kinship Care program provides a TANF-funded kinship care benefit to kin caring for related children at risk of abuse or neglect.

7. They can receive assistance for themselves and the children in their care if they are poor enough to qualify for benefits. Relative caregivers (though not unrelated kin), regardless of their income, can generally receive assistance for related children in their care.

Kinship Care: Making the Most of a Valuable Resource, edited by Rob Geen, is available in paperback from the Urban Institute Press (6" x 9", 302 pages, ISBN 0-87766-718-7, $29.50). Order online or call (202) 261-5687; toll-free 800.537.5487.

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