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Takeaways on Policy Discussion about Kinship Caregiving to Avoid Foster Care

Kinship caregiving – situations when relatives care for a child when a parent is unable to – is a longstanding practice, including in child welfare where relatives care for children both inside and outside of the child welfare system. About a third of all children in foster care – nearly 130,000 — are in kinship placements. And, it is estimated that up to 300,000 children are being cared for by relatives as a way to avoid foster care..

Kinship caregiving has bipartisan support and is widely considered to be best practice as it nurtures a child’s familial bonds, promotes cultural connections, and provides stability for children. However, there are differing perspectives on key kinship policy decision points making it a complex area of child welfare policymaking.

Earlier this month BPC hosted an online discussion to examine complexities in kinship care and learn about recent state policy efforts on kinship caregiving to avoid foster care.

Six important takeaways

1) Advocates use different terminology to describe the practice of relatives caring for children to avoid foster care; choice of language often reflects one’s perspective.

While kinship caregiving is viewed favorably by policymakers and the public, there is considerable debate within the field over how child welfare agencies should make kinship arrangements for children as a way to avoid having children enter foster care. The debate is not defined by political affiliation but rather reflects an array of differing philosophies, values and perspectives. The practice of kinship caregiving to avoid foster care is called many different things, including kinship diversion, hidden foster care, safety planning with kin, and shadow foster care.

2) Crafting effective, balanced and fair policies requires thoughtful attention.

Developing policies to support kinship caregiving to avoid foster care is challenging. Webinar guests discussed ensuring:

  • children need to be separated from parents and could not be safely maintained with their parents with supports provided;
  • kin caregivers can safely care for children and can meet their needs;
  • there is transparency and due process, that parents and kin caregivers know their options and rights;
  • roles and responsibilities of different actors are clearly articulated; and
  • consistency and equity in agency practice.

3) While considered best practice, kinship caregiving is also a work in progress.

A confluence of factors is driving policymakers’ attention to kinship caregiving. The new final regulations on kinship licensing provides new flexibility and opportunity for state and local agencies to engage and support kinship caregivers. In addition, the body of knowledge about the benefits to children’s health and development associated with kinship connections continues to grow.

Many state policy and program leaders are striving to deepen support for kinship caregiving by implementing new policies, programs and practices. A new series of reports by the Annie E Casey Foundation is documenting this movement. Several states have enacted legislation to address the needs of kinship caregivers who are stepping up to care for children so foster care can be avoided so far this year.

Virginia is one of the states enacting reform this year. The new legislation, which addressed legal structures, financial support, system navigation for families, safety protections, and implementation, passed unanimously in committee and in both houses of the legislature.  Stay tuned for an issue brief summarizing these policy efforts.

4) Kinship decision making should hold the interests of the kinship triad – parents, kin caregivers, and children. Legal rights are a particularly important and complex issue to balance.

In cases where kinship caregiving is used to avoid foster care, generally the parent retains legal custody while physical custody is transferred in an informal manner to a relative. The level of detail included in legislation about legal rights varies. Texas and Virginia are examples of states with comprehensive statutes. State laws governing kinship care to avoid foster care vary in terms of how, if at all, they address key considerations:

  • State law may or may not use a standard that mirrors the standard for involuntary removal, or it may not contain any standard.
  • Caregivers undergo criminal and CPS records checks and home assessments.
  • Parents are provided with notice of rights, including the right to consult an attorney. Caregivers are informed of their options to become foster parents and to receive support.
  • Parents comply with safety plans, agencies monitoring placement and providing reunification services, and caregivers provide for children’s needs for healthcare and education. In some states, courts may order transfer of custody to relatives in lieu of agency.

All of the above are important for ensuring equity and consistency. Texas now requires collection and dissemination of data on these placements.

5) Data is an important tool, yet there’s a lack of available data on kinship caregiving to avoid foster care.

Experts acknowledge a lack of reliable data to guide policymaking on kinship caregiving to avoid foster care; however, a bill is pending in Congress that would require states to begin gathering new data in this area. Only one state, Texas, has a data collection requirement in statute.

6) Fair and effective policies and programs can be achieved when those with kinship caregiving experience are involved in their design.

Webinar guests emphasized the importance of involving the expertise of those with personal kinship experience when developing policies and programs so new policies:

  • Address inequities that too often exist for families of color involved in child welfare systems;
  • Ensure that families have information and agency to make the best decision for the children in their care, avoiding any real or perceived coercive practices by child welfare agencies;
  • Make sure that informal kinship care arrangements are culturally and trauma-informed so that policies do not perpetuate inequities, discrimination or harm;
  • Create fair and equitable pathways for kinship caregivers to access needed supports and services; and
  • Ensure access to legal services for birth parents and kinship caregivers, noting that parents need access to counsel before consenting to their children being placed with kin to avoid foster care.

Our 2023 landscape assessment identified kinship as a top area of interest. We’re excited to continue exploring this evolving and essential topic.

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