In Australia, “in the last 12 months children… in out-of-home care has increased by 9.3% to 34, 060” (AIHW, 2010, p. viii). Approximately, 45% of these children reside in kinship care (AIHW, 2010). Given the substantial use of kinship care, attention has been directed to the responsible tailoring of policy and programming.
This paper examines national and international research on kinship care with the purpose of informing policy, programming and practice. Kinship care is a viable placement option for many children. However, it does require substantial professional expertise to ensure that the needs of children are being met and that kinship carers have the commitment, capacity and support needed to provide a placement. Appropriate service delivery and monitoring of kinship placements is required. Kinship care is a distinctive and unique type of out-of-home care and dedicated program support appears justified.
Prior to examining the research on kinship care, the state of the evidence requires noting, namely:
the evidence base on kinship care is conflicting and thus definitive conclusions on the effectiveness of kinship care are not possible. There are methodological weaknesses in the research and minimal longitudinal studies on the long-term outcomes of kinship care and
research does not always distinguish between formal and informal kinship care.
Defining kinship care
Kinship care is generally defined as “the full-time nurturing and protection of children who must be separated from their parents, by relatives, members of their tribes or clans, godparents, stepparents, or other adults who have a kinship bond with a child (CWLA, 1994, p. 2; cited in Winokur, Holtan & Valentine, 2009, p. 8). Kinship care is also referred to as relative, friends, family and kith (“persons from child’s or family’s community”) and kin (relatives) care (Bromfield & Osborn, 2007, p. 1). Kinship placement is one option when children require out-of-home care (Boetto, 2010).
Differentiation is also made between informal and formal kinship care. Informal kinship care (also known as private kinship care) is an arrangement that is usually made by the family (and extended family) without statutory or child welfare involvement. These children are usually not under any custody or guardianship arrangements with State or statutory authorities. Conversely, formal kinship care is organised by statutory authorities as a result of substantiated child harm and the necessity for a child to be placed out of the home. The child may or may not be in the custody/guardianship of statutory authorities (Strozier & Krisman, 2007; Carpenter & Clyman, 2004; Winokur, Crawford, Longobardi & Valentine, 2008).
For Indigenous Australians, distinguishing between kinship and foster care may not be culturally sensitive or relevant. Indigenous carers may be both kin and kith to children. “Many Aboriginal carers …[are] caring for multiple children and …[have the] dual roles of kinship and foster carers” (Higgins, Bromfield and Richardson, 2005 cited in Bromfield & Osborn, 2007, p. 4). Separating kin and foster care may be an unnecessary distinction (Higgins, Bromfield & Richardson, 2005 cited in Bromfield & Osborn, 2007).
Demographics of kinship carers and impact
Kinship care is a rapidly growing form of care in Australia and internationally. Reasons suggested for the increase in kinship care are: changes in legislation and policy regarding placement preference (kin given priority e.g. Aboriginal Child Placement Principle); decreasing number and shortage of available foster care placements; substance abuse by parents so kin are caring for children; changing family structure and conditions; children and families indicating a preference for kinship care; and increase in children requiring out-of-home care (Green & Goodman, 2010; Winokur et al, 2008; Backhouse & Graham, 2009; Bromfield & Osborn, 2007).
Although kinship care is provided by a range of people known to children (e.g. aunts, uncles, sisters, cousins) this form of care is often provided by individuals with the following characteristics: female (regularly grandparents), single, older, unmarried, less educated, living in overcrowded conditions, lower socioeconomic status, unemployed or out of the workforce and, existence of health issues (Shearin, 2007; Yardley, Mason & Watson, 2009; Rubin et al, 2009; Cuddeback, 2004). The motivations of kin for caring for a child are often: family loyalty, commitment and attachment to the child, obligation, not wanting sibling groups to be split up, wanting a child to stay within the family and a desire for the child not to be placed in foster care (Lernihan & Kelly, 2006). The distinctiveness between kinship and non-kin placements is also exemplified by the fact that the placement is often requested in crisis and regularly unplanned. Many kincarers have not had the opportunity to prepare emotionally and materially (e.g. beds, car seats) (Burke & Schmidt, 2009). Many kincarers are approached out of need and thus have not been assessed, trained and equipped (Boetto, 2010).
Considerable research has examined the impact of kinship care on carers. Impact means how the caring experience can influence/effect kincarers’ wellbeing. A range of impacts both positive and negative have been identified (Table 1). Notably, not all of these issues may be relevant for particular kinship carers. Kinship carers are not a homogenous group (Zinn, 2010). Four main impacts have been identified: personal, financial, child and family-related. Personal denote those effects which impact on the kin individually. They encompass emotional and psychological issues and ways in which a kinship carer’s personal aspirations may be changed. Financial impacts cover the potential economic implications of kinship caring. Child-related impacts represent the range of child needs a kincarer may have to respond to or organise assistance for. Family-related impacts highlight the potential change in family roles, structure and circumstances for kinship carers. Although these impacts could be classified in other ways, this framework does show the diversity of possible impacts on kinship carers. It is evident that the impact of kincare can be substantial with potentially many adverse implications for carers.