Assessment of potential kinship carers is a critical issue. It is an integral component of working towards positive placement outcomes for children and families. Three main challenges are often cited in relation to kinship care assessments: (1) whether there should be differences in assessment standards between kin and foster care; (2) whether intergenerational transmission has occurred and as such, whether kin carers have the same difficulties/issues as biological parents; and (3) that kinship assessments can be difficult for both families and workers. Many potential carers acknowledge the necessity of assessment but can feel resentment about the attention given to ‘risk’ (Doolan et al 2004 cited in Hunt, 2009, p. 112). Balancing information provision to authorities and family privacy can be difficult for families (Argent, 2009, p. 8). Further, calls from practitioners to have a different model/approach to kinship assessments create complexity to the kinship assessment process (Hunt, 2009).
The significance of quality assessment is supported by research (Hunt, 2009). “Farmer and Moyers (2008) found that placements were more stable where carers had been assessed as foster carers while Hunt et al (2008) report better quality placements where there had been a pre-placement assessment (not necessarily a full assessment)” (p. 112).
Although there is no consensus in the literature, nor apparent evidence on the effectiveness of particular assessment tools/approaches, many commentators do consider that kinship assessment does require a unique approach. This does not mean declining standards but rather “widen[ing] our horizons” (Argent, 2009, p. 7). Suggestions pertain to both the process and content of undertaking kinship assessments. Specialist kinship assessors have also been recommended (Gupta, 2008).
The process elements of kinship care assessments could include being: flexible but rigorous (Pitcher, 2001 cited in McHugh, 2009), supportive (Pitcher, 2001 cited in McHugh, 2009), empowering, collaborative or exchanging information (Hunt, 2008; O’Brien, 2001; Waterhouse, 2001 cited in McHugh, 2009, p. 44;), enabling rather than approving (Hunt, 2008; O’Brien, 2001; Waterhouse, 2001 cited in McHugh, 2009, p. 44 Breslin, 2009, p. 29); sensitive, respectful and inclusive (Doolan & Nixon, 2004 cited in Hunt, 2008, p.4-5 in McHugh, 2009, p. 43); partnership based (Gupta, 2008); and valuing the insights and knowledge that kin offer (Doolan & Nixon cited in McHugh, 2009). The intent of these processes is to make the assessment process friendlier and more supportive and thus less stressful for potential kincarers. The ability to accurately ascertain carers’ capacity and support needs may then be enhanced (Gupta, 2008). Flexible but thorough approaches still prioritise the safety and wellbeing of children but give greater latitude on domains such as potential caregivers’ age, health and physical environment (Flynn, 2001; O’Brien, 2001; Hunt, Waterhouse & Lutman, 2008; Wheal, 2001 cited in McHugh, 2009, p. 43).
A number of suggestions are offered on the content of kinship care assessment. Black (2009) reports via the Scottish experience that “the starting point for assessment should be the child’s plan, where the needs of the child are identified and proposals about how those needs might be best met are developed. The assessment of the carers should focus on the child’s needs and full consideration of how the kinship carers could meet those needs and what kind of supports and services they would require to achieve successfully the goals of the plan for the child” (p. 44). Gupta (2008) suggests a two-stage process which involves an initial viability assessment prior to placement followed by a more in-depth appraisal which examines parenting capacity and any vulnerabilities/difficulties in offering the placement. Discussion on how these issues might be best managed is also an important feature (Gupta, 2008).
Many issues that should be considered when undertaking traditional foster carer assessments are relevant for kinship assessment (e.g. family history, motivation to care for the child, child’s history, understanding of harm, discipline and behavior management approach, capacity to work with statutory services, risk and safety factors etc). Factors that are particularly pertinent for kinship assessments are detailed in Figure 1.
Recognition of the necessity for culturally-sensitive assessment approaches for Indigenous careproviders has also been emphasised3 (Bromfield et al, 2007 (c)). Key principles suggested are:
“using a flexible approach to assessment criteria
adapting assessment tools to reflect an Indigenous communication style
harnessing community knowledge in the assessment process and
collaboration between organisations and the department in the assessment process” (p.3).
A number of practice principles are suggested on how the assessment process can be culturally-sensitive: ensuring that plenty of time is dedicated to establishing rapport; using a yarning or conversation style of communication; not asking for information that has been provided in other forums (e.g training); canvassing community knowledge about the capacity of the individual to provide care; assessing domains that would normally be examined with non-Indigenous careproviders; examining Indigenous issues such as participation in Indigenous community, understanding of Indigenous kinship systems, knowledge of supports and services, awareness and understanding of historical welfare Indigenous issues (Higgins & Butler, 2007, p. 7).
Finally, it is vital that any type of kinship care assessment involves ensuring that both the carer and the child are assessed so as to determine whether the placement is “mutually supportive”. “Being related is not enough to ensure quality caregiving” (Crewe & Wilson, 2007, p. 234 emphasis added).
Figure 2: SUPPORT AREAS
Adequate financial support for a range of expenses (e.g. schooling, uniforms, transport, extracurricular, respite care)
Information provision on a variety of matters (e.g. parenting, behavioural management, legal standing; financial entitlements)
Identification and linkage to relevant services (e.g. mental health, family support)
Respite care, childcare services
Caseworker availability, engagement, expertise and continuity. Workers who are knowledgeable about a range of issues: e.g. behavioural management, health, their family and the child
Relationship development with child – assistance to further strengthen attachment with the child
Educational support to redress any difficulties with assisting the child academically
Support groups for carers to reduce social isolation (not all carers desire to be part of support groups). Also mechanisms that combine education and support (e.g. computer training course – see Strozier et al 2004)
Preparation and training to deal with the challenges of kinship careproviding
Help with contact when problems are being experienced
Counselling for kinship provider (e.g grief and guilt) and child (grief, harm issues etc) e.g. see Vimpani, 2004) and
Increased social work/practitioner support.
(Yardley et al, 2009; Shearin, 2007; Cross et al, 2008; Cole, 2006; Gaska & Crewe, 2007; Backhouse & Graham, 2009; Argent, 2009; Strozier et al, 2004; Farmer & Moyers, 2008; McHugh, 2009; Scannapieco & Hegar, 2002; Miller-Cribbs & Farber, 2008; Burke & Schmidt, 2009).