Abstract: Inequitable Access to Relative Caregiving: Implications of Foster Care Regulations in Finland, New Zealand, and the United States (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Inequitable Access to Relative Caregiving: Implications of Foster Care Regulations in Finland, New Zealand, and the United States

Friday, January 13, 2023
Alhambra, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Michael Hoffmeister, MSW, Field Faculty and Doctoral Student, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Background/Purpose: Scholars largely agree that placements with relative caregivers are best for children; findings consistently indicate that relative care is less disruptive and less traumatic for the child. However, the regulations that jurisdictions apply to determine eligibility for foster care licensure may limit relative caregivers’ access to the benefits of licensure. This analysis considers foster care regulations in three jurisdictions and the effects of policy decisions on eligibility for relative caregivers and placement options for children in out-of-home care.

Methods: In their review of child protective services systems in industrialized nations, Berger & Slack (2014) identify a continuum of services that varies by the nation’s perspective regarding the role of the system. The systems in these countries are largely categorized into one of three categories based on their priority: (1) child safety, (2) child/family well-being, or (3) equal priority regarding child safety and child/family well-being. This analysis considers the foster care regulations of one country from each category; the United States (Wisconsin) prioritizes child safety, Finland focuses on child and family well-being, and New Zealand considers both safety and well-being. This analysis considers how policy impacts a relative’s ability to be licensed as a foster parent, and the subsequent practice of placing children in relative homes. The foster care regulations in each country are evaluated based on the adequacy of the support provided to caregivers, the actual proportion of children placed in formal relative care as compared to non-relative and/or institutional care, and the unintended consequences of regulations that result in inequitable access to culturally appropriate care for children in out-of-home care.

Results: Finland, New Zealand, and Wisconsin all have a stated priority for placement of children with relative caregivers. However, even with a stated priority, the implementation of policies in practice differs by jurisdiction. Finland is adequate in prioritizing child and family well-being but lacks coherence and has regulations that are at high risk of bias. New Zealand’s policies are mostly adequate and coherent, though their highly regulated system is at risk of perpetuating inequity for indigenous populations. Wisconsin regulations are mostly coherent in supporting safety, however, the financial support provided to foster parents is inadequate and the highly regulated standards perpetuate inequity for low-income families and families of color.

Conclusions and Implications: Findings suggest that the structure of out-of-home care policies and the priorities of the governments who oversee them inform the implementation of policy in practice and differential outcomes experienced by the children and families they are meant to support. Limiting a relative caregiver’s ability to be licensed as a foster parent is a form of social exclusion, reducing their access to available support and limiting child access to relative care. Equitable access to foster care licensure would provide relative caregivers with additional tools to meet the needs of children in their care. Revisions to foster care licensing practices should prioritize placement with relatives by increasing flexibility in non-safety related requirements for relative caregivers in order to provide children with access to culturally appropriate placement options.