Journal Issue: Children, Families, and Foster Care Volume 14 Number 1 Winter 2004
Kinship foster care has emerged as a vital element of federal, state, and local foster care policy and practice. Yet despite the centrality of kinship foster care in child welfare, our understanding of how best to utilize and support kin caregivers, and the impact of kinship foster care placement on child development, is limited. Kin foster parents and the children in their care differ in significant ways from non-kin foster families. These differences, particularly the age, health, and resource limitations of many kinship caregivers, suggest that child welfare policy and practice must develop new ways for serving and supporting this group of caregivers. The emotional ties between kin caregivers and birth parents (often the caregivers' own children) can complicate efforts to meet the needs of children in care in several ways. For example, if there are tensions between kin caregivers and birth parents, the kin foster family could interfere with efforts to build healthy bonds between birth parents and their children. Alternatively, if kin caregivers are too close to birth parents, they may not provide adequate supervision to protect children from further harm during visitations or support efforts to secure alternative permanent placements should reunification not be possible. The complex web of policy and practice that has evolved around licensure and payment is another factor that complicates efforts to adequately and equitably compensate kin caregivers. Moreover, the resolution of these concerns is significantly influenced by broader societal and political debates about where the line should be drawn between family obligation and governmental responsibility.
Kin have been an ever-present family resource, often providing varying levels of caregiving support to family members. As the child welfare system continues to rely on kin to act as foster parents, policymakers and practitioners must ensure that policies and practices designed with non-kin foster parents in mind are not blindly or haphazardly applied to kin. Thoughtful consideration of the uniqueness of kinship care and rigorous review of best practices are needed if children in kinship care are to experience optimally healthy environments in which to grow.