Child welfare agencies frequently place children with their relatives. This is kinship foster care. It is estimated that approximately 25% of children in foster care are placed with relatives. Most kinship care providers are grandparents but others filling this role include aunts and uncles; older siblings; cousins and close family friends such as godparents.
Kinship care offers many positives for kids and families and it is often the first choice for a child needing out-of-home placement due to abuse or neglect. Children who are unable to live with their birth parents have been traumatized. Transitioning into a familiar home is less disruptive for a child than moving in with people they are just getting to know. Kinship care allows children to stay connected to family and their culture and to be with people who know their history. Kids in kinship foster care move less often than their peers in non-relative foster homes. That stability often protects children from the frequent school changes that most foster children experience as they move from one home to another.
Sometimes kinship care makes maintaining contact with birth parents simpler than it is for a child who is not living with family. When birth parents and kin caretakers work well together reunification can occur within a shorter timeframe. Chances of reunification increase when there is an alliance between the child birthparent and foster parent. Such an alliance is likely to occur more readily when foster care is provided by kin.
There are specific challenges involved in providing kinship care. Since kin caretakers are often grandparents they may be challenged by taking on full time care of a child, especially a child with special needs. Older kin caretakers also may have to resolve specific resource issues related to taking on responsibility for a child. They may, for example, live in housing where minors are not allowed.
Relationships with birth parents do not always go smoothly. Kin caregivers may be in the difficult position of having to set boundaries with the parents of their foster child. There may be disagreements around visitation which can be hard for family members to resolve.
Often kinship placements occur during a time of crisis which impacts not only the birth parents and their children but also the prospective kin caregiver. It’s a complicated process. A grandparent may be overwhelmed by the idea of parenting again but also determined to keep their family together. They want what’s best for their grandchild and at the same time may resent having been put in the position of becoming a full time caregiver.
Fortunately there are helpful resources available for kin providing foster care. Social workers help them connect to needed resources such as financial aid and and medical and dental care. They also help kinship caretakers understand the child’s special needs and link them to the mental health services, community supports, respite care and other programs which will make it possible for them to provide a loving and stable environment for their young relative. Many kinship caregivers find very relevant help by joining support groups designed specifically for kin foster parents. Being with other people who are in the same boat and who understand the joys and pains of kinship foster care can be just the help needed to keep someone going. And, to help them continue to provide the love and nurture that can help their young relative thrive.
Diane Kindler, LCSW