July 01, 2017

Kinship Care is Better for Children and Families

Heidi Redlich Epstein

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The idea of family members assisting and supporting each other is not new. This is a traditional practice in most cultures. The foster care system is starting to incorporate kinship care as a permanency option for children. Efforts are underway to remove barriers to kinship placements, including removing bureaucratic processes and streamlining legal proceedings to allow relatives to safely care for children and maintain important family connections. Efforts are also beginning to examine foster care licensing requirements, supports, and services for kin, and approaches to complex family dynamics that affect kin and their ability to care for children.

Kinship Care Overview

A total of 7.8 million children live with a relative who is the head of the household.1 More than 2.5 million of these children are raised by kin without a birth parent in the home.2 However, only roughly 120,000 (about 5%) of these children are living with kin who are foster parents.3 States are realizing the value of kinship caregivers, as the number of children entering care increases and the number of licensed nonrelated foster homes decreases as evidenced by the increase in the percentage of children in foster care with kin from 24% in 2008 to 29% in 2014.4 The current system is poised but not yet designed to take the unique challenges of placing children with kin into account.

Both child welfare law and policy prioritize placing children with grandparents, relatives, or close family friends, known as kinship care. Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 671, states must “consider giving preference to an adult relative over a nonrelated caregiver when determining placement for a child, provided that the relative caregiver meets all relevant state child protection standards.” Most state laws and policies also support a priority for placement with a relative.

Additionally, the federal Fostering Connections Act to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 acknowledges the important role relatives play in the life of a child and encourages states to connect foster children with their relatives.

Benefits of Kinship Care

Research shows that living with relatives is better for children and benefits them in several ways.

Minimizes trauma

Placement with kin caregivers when children cannot live safely with their parents can minimize the trauma of removal. When children are removed they often lose everything they know—their parents, their home, their siblings, friends, school, pets, etc. Placing a child with family diminishes this loss. Additionally, relatives often are willing to take large sibling groups, live in the same neighborhood therefore allowing for continuity of school and community, and provide the comfort of living with someone the child knows and shares a relationship with.

Improves children’s well-being

Research confirms that compared to children in nonrelative care, children in kinship homes fare better, as measured by several child well-being factors.5 Children in the care of relatives experience increased stability, with fewer placement changes, decreased likelihood of disruption and not as many school changes. Relatives are more likely than nonrelatives to support the child through difficult times and less likely to request removal of problematic children to whom they are related. The children themselves generally express more positive feelings about their placements and are less likely to run away.

Increases permanency for children

Kin caregivers also provide higher levels of permanency and children experience less reentry into foster care when living with kin. Relatives are more likely to provide a permanent home through guardianship, custody or adoption. Currently about 32% of children adopted from foster care are adopted by relatives. Another 9% exit foster care to some form of guardianship with kin. Under the Fostering Connections Act, 33 states, the District of Columbia, and six tribes have taken the option to operate federally funded Guardianship Assistance Programs designed for children and youth who have been in foster care with a relative for at least six months. This subsidized permanency option allows existing kin caregivers to become legal guardians of children with much-needed financial assistance and without the need to remain in the foster care system.

Improves behavioral and mental health outcomes

Children in kinship homes have better behavioral and mental health outcomes. One study showed children in kinship care had fewer behavioral problems three years after placement than children placed into traditional foster care. This study also found children who moved to kinship care after a significant time in foster care were more likely to have behavioral problems than children in kinship care from the outset. The long-term effects of these relationships was also studied and the formation of a close relationship with an adult, such as a kinship caregiver, was found to predict more positive mental health as an adult.

Promotes sibling ties

One important benefit of kinship care is the increased likelihood of living with or staying connected to siblings. Data from the Illinois Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-Being (ISCAW), a statewide study of well-being and service delivery for children involved in substantiated child maltreatment investigations, showed that in 2013, 80% of children with one or two siblings in care were placed together as compared to 66.9% for children placed in traditional foster homes. For children with three or more siblings in care the disparity is even greater with 53.5% of siblings placed together in kinship homes and only 1.8% placed together in traditional foster homes.6

Provides a bridge for older youth

The connection to family or another supportive adult is critical for older youth. Research shows it is key for youth to have permanent, emotionally sustaining and committed relationships to reach self-sufficiency and to reduce the risk of negative outcomes such as homelessness and criminal involvement. A key recommendation from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute report Never Too Old: Achieving Permanency and Sustaining Connections for Older Youth in Foster Care7 was to increase efforts to recruit, support and utilize relatives by promoting kinship adoption and subsidized guardianship, and explore subsidized guardianship and adoption.

However, the report also stressed the need to provide enhanced supports for relatives who foster or adopt as kin caregivers who typically have far lower incomes than other adoptive or foster parents. One study showed the value of mentoring relationships, a role often fulfilled by a close relative. A successful mentoring relationship was found to contribute to: socio-emotional development, problem-solving, and identity development. This was especially valuable to youth during vulnerable periods like transitions into and out of care.8

Preserves children’s cultural identity and community connections

Kinship care also helps to preserve children’s cultural identity and relationship to their community. Children in kinship homes are more likely to stay connected to their extended family and maintain their cultures and customs. Overall, research shows that family connections are critical to healthy child development and a sense of belonging. Kinship care allows for maintaining these critical family connections. The foster care system must consider and address the needs of kinship caregivers to help children achieve stability and permanency with families.

This CLP issue focuses on the role of kin and relatives as permanency resources for children in the child welfare system. The articles share practical information and best practices to guide child law practitioners when working on cases involving kinship issues.

Heidi Redlich Epstein, JD, MSW, is director of kinship policy at the ABA Center on Children and the Law, Washington, DC.

Endnotes
1. Lofquist, D. et al. Households and Families 2010: U.S., 2010 Census Briefs C2010BR-14. Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2012.

2. Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center. 2013-2015 Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement (CPS ASEC). Estimates represent a three year average. Accessed May 15, 2017.

3. Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center. Child Trends analysis of data from the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), made available through the National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect (NDACAN). Accessed May 15, 2017.

4. Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center. Child Trends analysis of data from AFCARS.

5. Research citations can be found in the following document: Generations United. Children Thrive in Grandfamilies, 2016. <www.grandfamilies.org>

6. Fuller, T. et al. Conditions of Children in or at Risk of Foster Care in Illinois 2013 Monitoring Report of the B.H. Consent Decree, 2015. Published by the Children and Family Research Center University of Illinois School of Social Work.

7. Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. Never Too Old: Achieving Permanency and Sustaining Connections for Older Youth in Foster Care, July 2011.

8. Ahrens, K. R., et al. “Qualitative Exploration of Relationships with Important Nonparental Adults in the Lives of Youth in Foster Care.” Children and Youth Services Review, 33, 2011, 1012–1023.