Childtrends databank has provided some new American data on foster care trends. They place the data in context helping us to see its importance. It also helps us to see that this is largely a troubled population. There is a foster care narrative that all foster care is bad and that kinship care is better. Let's look first at the American data:
"Because of their history, children in foster care are more likely than other children to exhibit high levels of behavioral and emotional problems. They are also more likely to be suspended or expelled from school and to exhibit low levels of school engagement and involvement with extracurricular activities. Children in foster care are also more likely to have received mental health services in the past year, to have a limiting physical, learning, or mental health condition, or to be in poor or fair health.1 One study found that almost 60 percent of young children (ages 2 months to two years) in foster care were at a high risk for a developmental delay or neurological impairment.2
Youth who “age out” of foster care instead of returning home may face challenges to making a successful transition to adulthood. According to the only national study of youth aging out of foster care, 38 percent had emotional problems, 50 percent had used illegal drugs, and 25 percent were involved with the legal system. Preparation for further education and career was also a problem for these young people. Only 48 percent of foster youth who had “aged out” of the system had graduated from high school at the time of discharge, and only 54 percent had graduated from high school two to four years after discharge. As adults, children who spent long periods of time in multiple foster care homes were more likely than other children to encounter problems such as unemployment, homelessness, and incarceration, as well as to experience early pregnancy.3,4"
The report adds:
"In 2009, nearly half (48 percent) of all foster children lived in homes of non-relatives. Nearly a quarter (24 percent) lived in foster homes with relatives—often known as “kinship care.” Sixteen percent of foster children lived in group homes or institutions, four percent lived in pre-adoptive families, and the rest lived in other types of facilities (based on preliminary estimates)."
A study published this past week, shows that there are pluses and minuses to being in foster care and also in kinship care. It also highlights the needs to better support kinship care. To do this may increase the benefits of kinship care and decrease the negative outcomes of children who cannot live in their biological parental homes. ScienceDaily on February 7, 2011 summed up the research:
"Children placed with a relative after being removed from their home for maltreatment have fewer behavioral and social skills problems than children in foster care, but may have a higher risk for substance use and pregnancy as teenagers, according to a report in the February issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals. These relatives -- known as kinship caregivers -- appear more likely to be single, unemployed, older, and live in poorer households, yet receive fewer support services than do foster caregivers....
Kinship caregivers were more likely than foster parents to have a low socioeconomic status -- they were four times more likely not to have graduated high school and three times more likely to have an annual household income of less than $20,000. However, they were less than half as likely as foster parents to receive any form of financial support, about four times less likely to receive any form of parent training and seven times less likely to have peer support groups or respite care.
At the three-year follow-up, children in kinship care were more likely to be with a permanent caregiver than were children in foster care (71 percent vs. 56.4 percent). They also had 0.6 times the risk of behavioral and social skills problems and half the risk of using outpatient mental health services or taking psychotropic medications. However, adolescents in kinship care had seven times the risk of pregnancy (12.6 percent vs. 1.9 percent) and twice the risk of substance abuse (34.6 percent vs. 16.9 percent).
"Our findings indicate that kinship caregivers need greater support services," the authors write. "The findings also indicate that kinship care may be associated with a reduced risk of ongoing behavioral and social skills problems and decreased use of mental health therapy and psychotropic medications. Conversely, adolescents in kinship care have higher odds of reported substance use and pregnancy. These findings suggest that increased supervision and monitoring of the kinship environment and increased caregiver support services are urgently needed to improve outcomes of children in kinship care."
The value of kinship care for children is significant. It allows them to sustain connection with family ensuring a greater sense of belonging. There appears to be lower risks for multiple placements as well allowing for greater stability in neighborhood, school and peer connections. By supporting these families, you can create the greater stability and perhaps also offset some of the economic issues. Clearly some of the negative outcomes require addressing if we are to truly make kinship care an overall better choice. Of course, not all kinship opportunities are better when the original problems that brought child protection in are systemic to the larger family system but that is certainly not always the case.
Note: the foster care data can be found at http://www.childtrendsdatabank.org/?q=node/199