Kinship families come together in a variety of ways, with the vast majority of these families never coming to the attention of the child welfare system and never receiving services from that system. Nationally, there is approximately 1 child in foster care with a relative for every 18 children outside of child welfare with a relative. For this data point, the phrase “in foster care” means that the child has been formally removed from their parents by child protective services, and the child is in the legal custody of the child welfare authority with a relative/kin providing the child’s care. The parents no longer have legal custody of their child, but the foster care system is obligated to try to help those parents reunify with their children. While the parents are attempting to reunify, the child welfare system worker should be attending to the well-being of the child by assisting with the child’s education, health care, and other needs. If reunification is not possible, the child should be able to exit foster care into financially supported kinship guardianship or adoption with the kinship caregiver.
For the 18 children who are “outside of foster care” – “outside” may not truly be outside. Many of these children come to the attention of the child welfare system but are not formally removed from their parent’s home and placed into the state’s legal custody. Instead of child removal and placement, these children can intersect with child welfare in essentially four major ways:
(1) Family Preservation Services
If the child’s parents have come to the child welfare system’s attention as needing parenting or other support, child welfare agency workers can try to help the parents keep the children in their home or in the home of kin caregiver by providing “family preservation services.” These services are short-term and designed to assist families cope with issues, including stress, that interfere with their ability to care for their children. The goal of these services is to maintain children with their families whenever it can be done safely.
(2) Prevention Plan
For more structured support, the child welfare system may work to keep the family together by creating a “prevention plan” under the Family First Prevention Services Act of 2018. That federal law allows for a plan delineating time limited prevention services to parents, children, and kin caregivers if the child welfare system deems the children at “imminent risk” of entering care. These services extend to children whose adoption or guardianship is at risk of disruption or dissolution. The goal of the prevention plan is to have the child remain safely with the parents or if moved to a kinship home, eventually returned safely to their parents.
(3) Safety Plan
Another common practice is that child welfare workers place the children with kin under a “safety plan.” The plan provides steps for the parents to meet to be able to have their child returned to them. The plan is often time limited and put into place while any allegations of parental abuse or neglect are being investigated. Throughout this process, the child welfare agency should be providing services and support to the parents, children, and caregivers. The goal of the safety plan is to quickly return the child safely to the parents. However, there have been many challenges in federal and state litigation to the use of safety plans and whether they are voluntary or coercive. Under a safety plan, there is no court oversight, the child is not formally or legally removed from the custody of the parents, and the parents often receive no legal representation. For these reasons, this type of arrangement is often called “Hidden Foster Care.” Child welfare agencies typically do not collect data on the use of safety plans.
The fourth practice is what is commonly known as “diversion,” which is likely the most frequently occurring practice of these four, although no national data exists on the numbers of children impacted by this practice.
There are two frequent ways that diversion happens. In one scenario, police and/or child protective service (CPS) workers come to a parent’s home to remove a child, due to an allegation of parental abuse or neglect. The parent may decide to contact a relative or friend who can care for the child in an effort to prevent foster care entry. The authorities may consent to allowing that person to informally take the child, and then consider the child welfare case closed. In some situations, this may be what the families prefer and should therefore be respected.
In other instances, the child may be in the process of being removed, the agency has a contact for a child’s relative or kin and reaches out and says – come get the child or else they are going into our legal custody and will go into (non-kin) foster care. The kin may feel coerced. They may even be told that if they do not take the child, they will never see them again.
In both diversion scenarios, there is often no agency or court oversight or any referrals for benefits or support for the family. Additionally, there may or may not be any formal legal relationship established between the kin caregiver and the child, and therefore the parents still retain all rights to custody of the child.
While many kinship service providers talk about inside/outside foster care or informal/formal families, it is not that simple. For children who come into contact with the child welfare system, the key to their successful placement with kin is providing support, services, and allowing for informed decision-making regarding options and the impact of each option on the entire family. Understanding these four broad categories should help in your review of the resources associated with this topic.