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2000 Jordan Institute
for Families

Vol. 1, No. 2
Winter 1996

Is Kinship Care a Road to Permanence?

Kinship care has been alternately touted as the answer to foster care drift and attacked as a barrier to permanence for children in care. While many see it as a more humane way to deal with a child's separation from his or her caretakers, others see it as perpetuating a child's involvement with those who raised the abusive or neglectful parent in the first place.

Nationally, kinship care is becoming a popular alternative to traditional foster arrangements, with more than 31 percent of all children in state custody being placed with relatives in 1992. North Carolina data for December 1995 showed that 2,344 children were placed with relatives, accounting for 18.5 percent of the children in care (DHR, 1995).

This article will examine the history of kinship care in child welfare, discuss the characteristics of kinship caregivers as compared to foster parents, report differences in perceptions of permanency between these two groups, and review the research to date on outcomes for children in kinship care.


In the recent article, From Family Duty to Family Policy: The Evolution of Kinship Care, Hegar and Scanapieco discuss the historical evolution of kinship care giving. They note that many like kinship care because it follows an American tradition of extended family care giving when parents are unavailable.

Indeed, until the Industrial Revolution, care by kin was the only alternative for children whose parents died or were otherwise incapacitated. Large scale natural disasters, together with man-made happenings, such as war, prompted the creation of orphanages when extended families were unable to care for their young members. These orphanages were founded by private religious or ethnic groups. It was not until early in this century that governmental child welfare structures were created.

While the government acknowledged the need to become more active in child welfare matters, it did not want to discourage family responsibility for care taking. This duality gave rise to the two-tiered payment system that complicates the kinship care debate.

Traditional foster parents are paid for their services at a particular rate, usually set by the state or private agency. In some states, kinship homes that meet foster care licensing standards are also paid the foster care rate. Kinship homes that do not meet these requirements can apply to receive AFDC payments for the child in their care; however, the AFDC rate is lower than the foster care rate. The reason for these two payment tiers is found in differing interpretations of the law.

The 1961 amendments of the Social Security Act were thought by many states to say that relatives could not be paid for out-of-home placement services. Other states decided that the lower AFDC payments a parent might receive would be the most appropriate rate for extended family who became caregivers for their child relatives.

Where kinship care is used for extended placements, the use of AFDC payments is still the standard practice. However, a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Miller v. Youakim, states that kinship homes that meet foster care licensing requirements must receive payment at the higher foster care rates. The reality is that a minority of kinship homes in the country meet licensing standards (Hegar & Scannapieco, p. 208).

In 1980, Public Law 96-272 explicitly stated that out-of-home placements with relatives should be the choice if removal from the parent's home could not be avoided.

Confusion Over Roles

Although many localities regularly use kinship care, written policies concerning it show a lack of consistency across states and confusion over the role of the kinship caregiver.

In a 1994 article, Gleeson and Craig assessed kinship care policies and programs in 32 states. While many of these states wrote about kinship care as a favored alternative to foster placement, few had clear guidelines for determining the appropriateness of a relative as a caregiver or rules about parental visitation or services the child would get while in care. Several states were involved in law suits compelling them to provide the same services to children in kinship care that they provided to children in traditional foster placements.

Gleeson and Craig believe this lack of uniformity is the result of confusion over the role of the kinship care giver. A foster parent is seen as a part of the child welfare system, caring for children on a temporary or extended basis. While foster parents may form attachments to the children in their care, theoretically, their first loyalty is to the child welfare agency.

Kinship caregivers are different. Almost always, kin have a relationship with a child that predates the agency's involvement. It is this relationship that makes the idea of kinship care so attractive-the relationship cushions the child's transition from parent to outof-home care.

However, based on their policy statements (or lack thereof), agencies recognize the difficulty of trying to impose a new structure (visiting schedules, family counseling, court and agency reviews) on a relationship that already exists. It is this tension that leads to the controversies surrounding kinship care.


Kinship caregivers are different than foster parents. Berrick, Barth, and Needell compared kin to foster parents in their 1994 article, A Comparison of Kinship Foster Homes and Foster Family Homes. The Californiabased study included 246 kin providers and 354 foster providers. The children in their care averaged 8 years of age.

Dramatic differences exist between the two groups. Kinship providers were twice as likely to be single parents than were foster parents, fewer had high school diplomas, and they were almost four times more likely to report being in poor health than were foster parents. Their average income was $32,000 per year, compared to $50,000 for foster parents. Nine percent of kinship care families had received training in the last year, as compared to 33 percent of foster parents.

Kinship caregivers are also different in their perceptions of permanency for the child. In a 1991 study by Thornton, 85 percent of kinship providers said they had no intention of adopting their related foster child. Many believed this would cause hard feelings in the family system, be confusing to the child, and be too expensive. However, almost all reported being committed to the child until he or she reached adulthood or was able to live independently.

Thus, it seems that there are three basic concerns at the heart of the controversy over kinship care. Some call kinship care into question on a family systems basis, asking "why put abused and neglected children in the continued on page 3 care of people who are part of the abusive parent's family system?" Others cast doubt on relatives' ability to provide for children properly, since they generally have fewer resources than foster parents. Finally, some see kinship placements as incompatible with permanency planning, since, although they are committed to the child's long-term stability, kinship caregivers seldom want to adopt.


One answer to these concerns lies in what the research shows about children in care-both foster children and those placed with relatives.

Currently, there are no longitudinal studies comparing outcomes for children in foster care to those in kinship placements, so we do not know what differences occur over time for these groups. However, studies do exist that examine differences between children placed with kin and those in foster care at specific points in time. The distinction between these two types of studies is important. Studies that follow children over many years tell us more about whether a certain type of placement is beneficial than studies that look at outcomes during a shorter time frame.

In their 1994 article, Children in Kinship Care: How Do They Fare? Dubowitz and colleagues looked at the health, mental health, and educational status of 524 children in kinship care. Their findings were then compared to similar studies of foster children and children not in care. They found that children in kinship care were no different than children in foster care in terms of health, mental health, or educational outcomes.

However, kinship children, like foster children, were much different than the general population of children, with standardized test scores being lower, problems on the Child Behavior Checklist being more numerous, and health problems being more pronounced and abundant than in the general population.

So, what do our overall findings tell us about kinship care? They suggest that kinship care may be less traumatic for a child than out-of-home placement with persons unknown to them. They also demonstrate that, despite the lack of resources in many kinship homes, children are just as well off in kinship care as they are in foster care. Indeed, if kinship homes were given more resources, children in these placements might flourish at a greater level than those in foster care.

When planning for permanency, long-term kinship care with adults clearly committed to the child's well being and stability should be considered an alternative to adoption. In other states, legal guardianship arrangements with relatives accomplishes this goal.


Berrick, J., Barth, R., & Needell, B. (1994). A comparison of kinship foster homes andfosterfamily homes: Implications for kinship foster care as family preservation. Children and Youth Services Review, 16 (112), 33-54.

Dubowitz, H., Feigelman, S., Harrington, D., Starr, R., Zurvain, S., & Sawyer, R. (1994). Children in kinship care: How do they fare? Children and Youth Services Review, 16 (112), 85-106.

Gleeson, J. & Craig, L. (1994). Kinship care in child welfare: An analysis of states' policies. Children and Youth Services Review, 16 (112), 731.

Hegar, R. & Scannapieco, M. (1995). From family duty to family policy: The evolution of kinship care. Child Welfare, 74 (1), 200-216.

N.C. Department of Human Resources. (1995). Living arrangements analysis. DSS Client Placement Tracking System. Raleigh, NC: Author.

Thornton, J. (1991). Permanency planning for children in kinship foster homes. Child Welfare, LXX (5) 593-601.

1996 Jordan Institute for Families