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  • Writer's pictureMeg Smith

Promoting Kinship Care as a Best Practice for Students in Foster Care

Meg Smith, MSW, LICSW, ACSW Workforce Development Coordinator, Center for Trauma Care in Schools

One of the most traumatic events children can face is removal from their homes to be placed in foster care. The circumstances that led to removal are themselves often traumatic, but placement in the care of strangers creates additional traumatic stress. In addition, depending on the location of available foster placements, children may need to change schools and thereby lose the support of their teachers and other trusted adults. One of the many predictable negative impacts of foster placements is its effect on school performance.

A recent study using data from more than 500,00 children in North Carolina has shed light on the significant advantages of kinship care over traditional foster care for children and youth who cannot live with at least one birth or adoptive parent. This study, authored by Tyreasa Washington and her colleagues, is highlighted in a recent Child Trends’ brief. It found that children placed with family relatives or others with whom they have a close bond had better academic, behavioral, and mental health outcomes compared with children placed in traditional out-of-home care (OOHC). The findings indicate that kinship care not only supports the academic well-being of children, but also offers numerous other benefits including family connectedness, belonging, and placement stability.

Three types of OOHC were studied: 1. Formal kinship care refers to the placement of children with relatives or family friends under the supervision of the child welfare system, and come with economic and other resources. 2. Informal kinship placement involves children being placed with relatives without the direct oversight of child welfare agencies and generally without financial or other supports. 3) OOHC foster care placement with non-relative families. Recent census data finds approximately 2.6 million children are in kinship care, with more than 70 percent informally placed.

The study’s authors, identified two pivotal findings that highlight the potential benefits of kinship care for children and youth:

Academic Success: Among children in OOHC, both those placed in formal and informal kinship care demonstrated better academic performance compared to their counterparts in non-relative foster care, particularly in terms of math scores. This difference may be attributed to the reduced trauma experienced by children in kinship care as they maintain connections with their families, have placement stability, experience fewer school disruptions, and maintain cultural continuity all of which contribute to better developmental outcomes, particularly in academics.

Type of OOHC Placement Matters: The study found that children placed in Formal kinship care had better outcomes in multiple areas, including academic performance, than other forms of OOHC. In fact, their performance closely resembled that of children living with their birth or adoptive parents. This suggests that formal kinship care, with its structured supervision and added economic and mental health supports, can provide a nurturing environment akin to a child's own family.

Based on their findings, the study's authors offer the following recommendations:

1. Promote Kinship Care: Kinship care, whether formal or informal, should be a priority approach to reduce the traumatic stress of OOHC while also supporting better academic outcomes. Encouraging children to remain connected with their families, providing placement stability, and maintaining cultural continuity can have far-reaching benefits, especially in terms of academic success, as well as behavioral and mental health outcomes. The study authors recommend kinship care as one way to reduce the overrepresentation of children of color in the child welfare system, particularly among Black and Native American children.

2. Increase supports for Informal Kinship Families: While formal kinship care emerged as a preferred option, it's vital to extend some additional supports to informal kinship families. These caregivers often need additional economic resources and access to other services needed to support the children entrusted to them. Reducing the all or nothing distinction between formal and informal OOHC could increase flexibility of needed services.


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