The Problem with Kinship Care

The Problem with Kinship Care

Naomi Schaefer Riley
Naomi Schaefer Riley
8 min read

Thanks, but no thanks. That was the message that aspiring foster parents got this fall when they sent inquiries offering their services to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families. According to an automatic email reply from Dawn Marlow, administrator for the Office of Resource Families, the state is not accepting applications from any foster parents except those who are willing to take care of children with “complex developmental or medical needs.” How is it that states from Georgia to Michigan are struggling to find enough qualified foster homes to take in children—especially during a pandemic when many homes have closed and recruitment is hard—but New Jersey is doing just fine? The letter explains that: “In New Jersey, the number of youth in foster care continues to be reduced each year because we are focusing first on kinship placements.”

It’s true that the state has reduced the number of kids in foster care by two-thirds since 2003, from 13,000 to 4,000. But there are only about 1,700 kids who are being officially removed from their homes and cared for by relatives now (compared to 2,000 in non-relative homes). In other words, according to the state’s numbers, state-sanctioned kinship care can hardly be the real reason for this dramatic drop. What happened to the other 7,300 kids who would have been in foster care? If the state’s account of things is correct and kinship is the reason behind the drop, then they are in some kind of unofficial kinship care, not being monitored or even counted by officials.

Jedd Medefind of the Christian Alliance for Orphans (a national umbrella organization of foster and adoption organizations) tells me, “We should definitely celebrate any success in minimizing the need for foster placements, particularly if it’s been done in a wise and appropriately cautious manner… That said, it’s hard not to feel concern that these positive numbers could be obscuring something not so positive.” Other child welfare leaders who would only speak off the record echoed Medefind’s uneasiness and were shocked to find out that the state had stopped recruiting non-relative foster parents.

New Jersey’s child welfare system has been under a consent decree since 2004 after settling a 1999 class action lawsuit. Among the goals of the suit was to reduce the number of kids in foster care. The state has touted an increase in the amount and variety of preventive services it offers to families at risk—including home visiting for children under the age of five. But there are other ways to make the foster care numbers move in the right direction—not all of them safe. One is simply to find fewer cases of maltreatment. The fact that New Jersey has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic—and has one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country—would also normally be a sign that more kids will need to be removed. But the state moved in the opposite direction, even at the height of the drug crisis. (From 2014 to 2019, the number of kids in foster care plummeted from about 7,500 to 4,500.)

According to statistics reported to the federal government, the state claims to have half as many substantiated cases of maltreatment as a percentage of the population compared to the country as a whole (4.8 per 1,000 compared with 9.2 per 1,000). Among children who were investigated for maltreatment, the state also claimed half the percentage who were found to have been victims (13 percent versus 24 percent). It is also investigating a lower percentage of cases that are being reported to abuse hotlines or other authorities (37 percent versus 45 percent nationally). All of these numbers might be great news and a sign that the state’s other support services are working. The fact that the number of reports to the state child abuse hotline rose from 75,000 to 80,000 between 2012 and 2019 does not inspire confidence, though. If preventive services like home-visiting are supposed to ward off a family’s involvement with the child welfare system altogether, why would more people be calling in reports of abuse or neglect?

It is not only the state’s consent decree that is pushing it to reduce foster care numbers significantly. Foster care itself has become an increasingly unpopular system—this summer there was an “abolish foster care” movement that paralleled the movement to “abolish the police.” Indeed, the administrator currently in charge of overseeing New Jersey’s compliance with the consent decree is Judith Meltzer, head of the Center for the Study of Social Policy (CSSP), which has just launched the upEND campaign. Its goal is to end children’s removal from families entirely.

The upEND movement and its allies see foster care as systemically racist and kinship care—in part because it automatically places kids with adults who share their skin color—as the better alternative. If there is no substantiated finding of maltreatment, then the state can find relatives to care for kids without ever having to report those kids as part of the foster care system. The fact that New Jersey officials tells me they don’t keep any statistics on informal kinship care makes this last possibility more than likely, and more concerning. Elizabeth Occhipinti, the CEO of Miriam’s Heart, a faith-based organization that supports adoptive and foster children and their families in New Jersey, tells me: “I am sincerely concerned that children are being left in situations of profound abuse and neglect and without access to essential services and support because of the Division’s policies.”

Of course, guidance from federal authorities as well as state child welfare agencies has encouraged the extensive use of kinship care for decades now. But relying on kinship care is not the panacea that some child welfare leaders make it out to be. If you want to get a sense of what it looks like you could do worse than watch the recently released movie Hillbilly Elegy, or read the book on which it’s based. After years of turmoil living with a mother who abuses drugs and puts his life in danger, the author, J.D. Vance, describes how his grandmother “Mamaw” eventually takes custody of him. Not officially, of course, but this is exactly the kind of arrangement that states like New Jersey are increasingly counting on.

The climactic moment in Vance’s childhood story occurs when his mother takes him on a car trip where she gets increasingly agitated, starts driving over 100 mph and saying, “I’m going to crash this car and kill us both. I’m going to crash this car and kill us both.” When she does eventually pull over she starts hitting him. He gets out of the car and she starts chasing him. His mother is eventually arrested on domestic violence charges but in order to avoid being sent into foster care, Vance will not tell the authorities what happened. As he explained to NPR’s Terry Gross, “The judge asked whether she had done anything to threaten me. And I lied. I told him no because I knew that if I kept on pushing the case, one, it would cause a lot of problems for the family. And two, it might land me in a foster home.”

Instead, Vance winds up living for most of his adolescence with Mamaw. “Luckily,” he recalls, “I had enough faith in my grandma. I knew that she wouldn’t let anything too bad happen to me.” Vance’s story of remaining in the care of his extended family and not being put into the system turned out well—he eventually goes into the Marines, college, and Yale Law School—but it is easy to imagine how the situation might have gone south. Indeed, it often does. Vance’s mother’s addiction problems are often blamed on her own childhood. Her father was an alcoholic who beat his wife regularly. To teach him a lesson one night, Mamaw sets him on fire. Advocates of kinship care often claim that we cannot assume that just because parents are not behaving well that there is widespread dysfunction in an extended family. But for Vance, that is clearly the case.

At the age of 12, Vance says he knew that his grandmother would protect him, but there are plenty of kin who might not have. And what if Vance had been younger? Would we have wanted a seven-year-old to make such a decision knowing that if things turned out badly he would have no way of fending for himself or of independently going to the authorities. Kids will almost always choose kinship care because they want to remain with the people they know—it is traumatizing to place a child with strangers. But if we are worried enough about a child’s welfare to remove them from the home of their parents, we should also be concerned enough to see that they are placed into a safe environment after that. Many states have lower standards—either officially or unofficially—for leaving kids with relatives than non-relatives. There are plenty of “Mamaws” out there who would not have passed the background check required to be a foster parent.

Fred Wulczyn, the founder and director of the University of Chicago’s Center for State Child Welfare Data, has argued that the relative ease of placing children with kin may influence the decisions of caseworkers, who are generally not required to conduct extensive background checks and follow-up assessments for kinship caregivers. The motivation of caseworkers operating in the current environment may be “less than virtuous.” They may be thinking, “I don’t have time to do adoption or foster care” with non-relatives. James Dwyer, a professor at William and Mary Law School, has also raised the issue of liability, explaining that, generally, “caseworkers prefer relative families [because] if something goes wrong, it’s the families’ fault.”

Keeping kids with extended family also means that they will in all likelihood continue to be cared for at least some of the time or have regular contact with the parents who mistreated them in the first place. Margaret Nichols Honeycutt, a pediatrician who works in Richlands, Va., told me that many children she sees born drug-exposed “may have the grandparent listed on the guardian certificate but they are going to the same home.” She notes, “Because drugs here are a multigenerational problem, if the kids go home with the grandparents, the pathology is still right in their face.”

Vance’s grandmother lives in a different home from his mother, but his mother sees him as often as she wants. And while this is fine for Vance, who is old enough to know when his mother is dangerous and is being cared for by a grandmother who will give him refuge, there are plenty of children for whom this is not true. Moreover, the fact that a parent with addiction issues who has lost custody of her children has continued access to them may actually remove one of the major incentives to get clean.

A study from the University of Michigan’s Youth Policy Lab earlier this year found that removing children from homes to foster care has positive long-term benefits—attributable at least in part to a change in parents’ behavior. Looking at “borderline” cases, in which some Michigan caseworkers might have chosen to leave a child in the home with “services” and others would have removed the child, the authors concluded that foster placement reduced the likelihood of future confirmed maltreatment by 56 percent. It is not surprising then that children placed with kin are more likely to stay in foster care longer since parents do not have the incentive of real separation to push them toward reform.

Proponents of kinship care argue that kids living with extended family are less likely to experience multiple placements and less likely to re-enter foster care a second time. On the other hand, they are less likely to be adopted—because kin may not want to seem responsible for severing a relationship between parent and child and they will not achieve the kind of permanency that makes for a more stable, happy childhood.

All of which is to say that kinship placements may be right for many children, including some in Vance’s position. But simply fobbing these kids off on relatives without any real vetting, let alone continued monitoring, is a dangerous proposition. And if states stop recruiting non-relative foster parents altogether, caseworkers will have more of an incentive to place children into unstable kinship situations.

Occhipinti says she has heard from employees of the New Jersey child welfare system, “that insufficient services and supports are being implemented to keep kids safe with family members who have abused or neglected them.” She tells me, “Combined with the reduced opportunity for others to check in on kids while home in isolation, we are facing a perfect storm for children’s safety.”

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Naomi Schaefer Riley

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the AEI and the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.