Andrew E. Zinn, PhD, Senior Researcher
Saturday, January 17, 2009: 2:00 PM-3:45 PM
Balcony L (New Orleans Marriott)
Over the past 20 years, many states have expanded and formalized kinship foster care programs in response to several factors, including the need to increase the number of available foster homes and to satisfy federal requirements that give preference to placement with relatives (Gleeson & Craig, 1994; Schwartz, 2002). As the role of kinship care in public child welfare has grown, however, the scholarly treatment of kinship care has remained somewhat one-dimensional. In brief, scholars have tended to conceptualize kinship foster families as deriving from a homogeneous population, which--although distinct from the population of non-kinship families--has been assumed to predict common placement experiences and outcomes. Similarly, researchers who have examined the outcomes of children placed with kin have seldom drawn distinctions between kinship placements made under different circumstances or at different points in time during children's care spells. There is reason to believe, however, that considerable variability exists with respect to the characteristics of kinship foster families and placements. At the very least, the observed differences in the characteristics of the families of children in substitute care would imply similar variability among their kinship caregivers. This variability may, in turn, differentiate kinship placements with respect to a number of factors that directly or indirectly affect child outcomes, including families' prior relationships with the children they are fostering, the quality of care families provide, and their ability and willingness to supervise parental contact or serve as adoptive parents. The goal of the papers presented in this symposium is to begin the process of characterizing the level of variability within kinship care and the extent to which this variability serves to differentiate children's outcomes. The first paper draws on a survey of child welfare caseworkers and on administrative data from a state child welfare agency to identify significant differences among kinship foster families and to explore the relationships between these differences and child outcomes. The second paper explores whether age patterns and the identification of behavior problems in school are associated with the timing of placement with kin. The third paper, which draws on interviews with relative caregivers, describes common themes and variability among kinship care families with respect to the decision to care for a child, the reaction of the larger family, the child's well-being, and the families' need for and use of services. Together, the findings of these three papers support the hypothesis that identifiable and important differences exist across kinship foster families and placements, and that a richer conceptualization of both would serve to inform our understanding of the nature of the relationships between kinship status and child outcomes.
* noted as presenting author