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Benefits and risks of kinship care

Research on the effectiveness of kinship care is still emerging with results being mixed and inconclusive. A number of benefits and risks of kinship care have been identified. Some research suggests that kinship care may afford the following benefits:

  1. remove a child from adversity by minimising disruption (Aldgate, 2009, p. 52)

  2. provide stability (Aldgate, 2009, p. 52)

  3. preserve continuities (Aldgate, 2009, p. 52)

  4. reinforce a child’s sense of identity and self esteem (Aldgate, 2009, p. 52)

  5. be less traumatic than going to other forms of out-of-home care (Shearin, 2007, p. 35)

  6. buffer the effects of family separation

  7. children continue to enjoy a sense of belonging (Farmer, 2009, p. 340)

  8. less disruptive than other forms of out-of-home care (Aldgate, 2009, p. 52; Shearin, 2007, p.35)

  9. children may feel loved by kin (Shearin, 2007, p. 35)

  10. children and parents may prefer placements with kin (Farmer, 2009)

  11. children may experience less stigma than other out-of-home living arrangements (Messing, 2006)

  12. may result in fewer placement changes (Cole,2006)

  13. children more familiar with extended family (Cole, 2006, p. 498)

  14. can be an avenue of social capital (Kang, 2007)

  15. continued connection and contact with birth parents (Cole, 2006; Rubin et al, 2008)

  16. children are more likely to remain in the same community (Rubin et al, 2008)

  17. more likely to be placed with siblings (Rubin et al, 2008)

  18. can create a ‘normalising experience’ for children (Warren-Adamson, 2009, p. 82)

  19. can be less restrictive for children (Scannapieco & Hegar, 1999 cited in Winokeur et al, 2008, p. 339; and

  20. can keep a child connected to their family and culture (Broad, 2006).

However, a number of risks or concerns about kinship care have been identified:

  1. impacts and effects on kinship carers and their own difficulties (see previous section)

  2. developmental impacts on child (i.e. insufficient stimulation, meeting child needs) due to the capacity of kin carers (Cross et al, 2008; Palaclos & Jimenz, 2009)

  3. safety issues – parents may gain unsafe access and contact to their children (Messing, 2006)

  4. difficulties for kin to manage new responsibilities and boundaries within the family (Holtan et al, 2005)

  5. kin may not enforce court orders (Green et al, 2010)

  6. poorer or different standard of care expected by services providers compared to non-kin placements (Cuddeback, 2004)

  7. kin having to deal with difficult family dynamics and stress (Argent, 2009)

  8. kinship carers can be more difficult to work with for professional staff (Cuddeback, 2004) and

  9. kin families are not sufficiently supported (Warren-Adamson, 2009).

Key messages

Kinship care refers to children residing with family or friends. Kinship care can be formal or informal.

Research on kinship care is inconclusive. Research findings and reported outcomes must be considered cautiously.

Kinship care is often provided by individuals with the following characteristics: female (regularly grandparents), single, older, unmarried, less educated, lower socioeconomic status, unemployed or out of the workforce and, have health issues.

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. Kin carers are often not prepared for the placement.

Kinship carers may experience a range of personal, financial, child and family-related impacts (positive and negative). They may be under considerable stress and experience numerous adverse implications.

Kinship care can afford numerous benefits to children such as lessoning disruption, continuity, sense of belonging, identity formation, cultural and familial preservation and stability.

Kinship care does have a number of risks which may necessitate monitoring and service support/provision.

Outcomes: foster and kinship care

The research on outcomes of children who reside in kinship care is inconclusive. Research reports on the following outcomes: placement stability, continuity of relationships, behavioural and emotional issues, environmental hardship, reunification, adoption and disruption.

Placement stability is an outcome regularly reported when comparing kin and non-kin foster care (Cuddeback, 2004). Winokur’s et al (2008, p. 344-345) research found that “children in kinship care in Colorado experienced as good or better outcomes than did children in foster care…. Specifically, children in kinship care had significantly fewer placements and were seven times more likely to be in guardianship” (see also Chang & Liles, 2007).

The stability of kinship placements is also supported by other research (Farmer, 2009). This improved stability for children in kin placements is at times at the expense of the carers who may be suffering considerable stress (Farmer, 2009). Kin carers often have a strong commitment to persevere with a placement even when it is experienced as highly challenging as compared to non-related foster carers (Farmer, 2009). The duration of unacceptable placements (including very poor placements) can be longer for kin as compared to foster placements. This may be due to insufficient professional monitoring and follow-up, that concerns raised from others was not sufficiently considered, or that quality standards were not upheld because practitioners felt “…that they could not intervene readily in kin placements or thinking that, for children, being with family trumped other difficulties” (Farmer 2009, p. 339, also Farmer, 2010, p. 439). Other suggestions are that there was no good alternative and that the child was older and more difficult to place (Lutman et al, 2009).

Some research has suggested that the outcome of continued relationships between child and biological parents may be enhanced by kinship care arrangements particularly through contact arrangements (Holton et al, 2005).

The number and nature of behavioural and emotional problems of children in kinship care as compared to non-kin care has also been considered but is inconclusive (Cuddeback, 2004). Some research has reported that children in kinship care do experience less behavioural problems than their non-kin counterparts (Holtan et al, 2005). However, some children in kinship care may have emotional and mental health difficulties but these are not identified due to their placement status. Kin carers may be less inclined to report behavioural difficulties and persist with the placement. “This ‘sticking power’ is a key contribution of kincarers but also means that many of them continue to care when they are under considerable strain, and in those circumstances placement quality is poor” (Farmer, 2009, p. 442 emphasis added).

In Cuddeback’s (2004) research synthesis on kinship care it is reported that “there is some evidence that children in kinship care are functioning less well compared with children in the general population …[e.g. more behavioural problems, homework difficulties, lower performance on English, maths, problem solving, listening, comprehension)…(p. 628, emphasis added).

Some research has suggested that kinship placements do not afford children the same level of safety as non-kin placements. Traditional foster placements may be safer in terms of potential for violence and other environmental hazards (Berrick, 1997 cited in Chang & Liles, 2007).

Children residing in kinship placements may be experiencing greater ‘environmental’ hardship due to the demographic features of their caregivers (e.g poverty, older, single, illness, less educated) (Ehrle & Geen, 2002, p. 30). This can impact on a child in terms of a kincarer’s capacity to offer resources and/or facilitate learning and opportunities (Ehrle & Geen, 2002). Kincarers receive less services, training and support provision than non-kin foster carers (Ehrle &Geen, 2002; Cuddeback, 2004).

Reunification to biological parents has been found to occur more slowly for children in kinship care compared to foster placements (Cuddeback, 2004). Some USA research reports that return rates from kinship care compared to foster care to natural family are lower (Hayward & DePanfilis, 2007). This may reflect that placement with kin may be used when reunification is less likely and/or that family dynamics/opinions may lessen the likelihood of a child returning home (Farmer, 2009). Research has not sufficiently established the reason for reunification differences between kin and non-kin (Talbot, 2006).

Some research reports that kin are less likely to adopt a relative child. The reasons for this are unclear but may be related to: psychological barrier of kin to adopt a relative child; reluctance on the part of professional staff to discuss this permanency option; kin having insufficient information about adoption, kin being concerned about the effects of adoption on the family network; and kin hoping that parents may eventually be able to care for their children (Cuddeback, 2004; Nash, 2010; Ryan et al, 2010).

Overall, outcomes for children in kinship care appear positive. “If the goal of kinship care is to enhance the behavioural development, mental health functioning, and placement stability of children, then the evidence base is supportive” (Winokur, Holtan & Valentine, 2009, p. 37). However, children in kinship care have “worse outcomes than children who have never lived in care1, but do at least as well, if not better, than children in non-relative foster care” (Bromfield and Osborn, 2007, p. 6).

Hunt et al (2009) further add that successful kinship placements are more likely if:

  1. the child is younger at the time of placement

  2. the child has minimal problems

  3. the child has resided with the kin previously

  4. the kin initiated the placement

  5. the kin is a grandparent

  6. the kin is a sole carer

  7. there were no other siblings living in the household (cited in Hunt, 2009, p. 109; see also Lutman, Hunt & Waterhouse, 2009), although other research has stated the opposite (e.g. Farmer & Moyers, 2008; cited in Hunt, 2009, p. 109).

A strong commitment to a child, good parenting capacity, flexibility, adequate support and resources have also been identified by kin themselves as factors that may contribute to optimal kinship careproviding (Coakley et al, 2007).

Conversely, disruption or less favourable outcomes for children in kinship may occur if: a parent has drug issues, has multiple partners or is involved in prostitution; the child is older (ten and above); the carer is not highly committed to the child; both child and carer do not know each other well ; the child has significant health, behavioural and disability issues; the child is placed with an aunt and/or uncle; and contact is not supervised (Farmer & Moyers, 2008 cited in Hunt et al, 2009, p. 109; Chang & Liles, 2007, p. 520; Lutman, Hunt & Waterhouse, 2009). Farmer (2010, p. 440) also report that the following factors may be predictive of poor quality kin placements: carer strain, low kin commitment to a child, and a child who previously truanted from school prior to placement. These factors are important to consider when identifying which kin placements may be at higher risk for disruption and therefore require greater support. Some children who have disrupted kin placements will re-place within their family networks and continue to have a good relationship with a previous kinship carer (Lutman et al, 2009).

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