Kin, Fictive Kin, and Non-Kin Foster Homes: What Is Best For The Child

by spicyray

When I started researching this article, I was interested in the dynamics of foster homes, comparing kin and non-kin placements to understand any factors which might increase or decrease the traumatic impact on children who are experiencing out-of-home placements. I examined over 23 peer-reviewed journal articles, and after reading the conclusions of so many professionals,

I realized I was not asking enough questions. Beyond the difference between kin and non-kin placements, we need to consider the role of Child Protection professionals in the experience, the place of the child’s and the professional’s race in the experience, the nebulous area occupied by fictive kin when addressing child care placements, and how we can best create an environment in which all Child Protection professionals continue to grow and serve families in better ways.

Why the shift in focus?

During my research, it became evident that there is widespread confusion, along with contradictions and educated hypotheses, about the effectiveness of kin and non-kin foster homes. Both researchers and field professionals are grappling with the same questions and dilemmas, and they are also finding themselves without solid, reliable data.

The issue is not merely one of kin and non-kin placements but of the role of Child Protection in making these choices. And in order to understand the purpose of foster homes and the concept of kin placement, knowledge about the history of Child Protection is vital. 

Child Protection from a historical viewpoint

In “A Short History of Child Protection in America,” John E.B. Myers describes three eras of child protection in America: before 1875, when there was no organized child protection; an era of increased formalized but nongovernmental child protection up through 1962; and 1962 to the present, when we have had government-sponsored child protective services. (Myers, 2009)

In the early 1970s, concerns from the African American community led to the development of kinship laws, which encouraged foster placement with members of a child’s extended family. In 1972, as part of this movement, The National Association of Black Social Workers drafted a paper about the importance of placing children of color with adoptive parents of the same ethnic background.

“Human beings are products of their environment and develop their sense of values, attitudes and self-concept within their family structures. Black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as Black people” (National Association of Black Social Workers, 1972).

This statement about the role of race in a child’s life had a noticeable impact on the conversation about Child Protection in the coming years, specifically affecting African American and Native American children (Myers, 2009). Both these groups have been marginalized culturally, and African-American, followed by Native American, children represent the highest percentages of children in foster care in the United States (Zinn, 2011).

In 1997, The Adoption and Safe Families Act came into effect, which required Child Protection stakeholders to make reasonable efforts to locate permanent family options if reunification with birth parents was not possible. This law meant that as part of concurrent planning, Child Protection agencies were to explore permanent placement options while simultaneously trying to reunify kids with their parents if possible (Herbert, Kulkin, & McLean, 2003).

These laws created an environment in which Child Protection professionals were expected to consider the racial identity of children in foster care and to prioritize kin placements. But the laws did not provide education, research, and support to help professionals to make the most informed, responsible decisions.

Kinship or foster home placements: What does the research suggest?

Many people agree that kin placements are preferable when possible. And with permanent placement or reunification as a goal, a 2011 article discovered that: “Prior research shows that children reunified from kinship foster homes are less likely to re-enter foster care than children who exit from non-kinship foster home” (Koh and Testa, 2011, p. 1497).

Another study found that kinship foster care yields better outcomes for victimized children mostly because children who had regular contact with a wide range of family members–including cousins, grandparents, and other connected people–felt better about themselves overall. (Kiraly and Humphreys, 2016) The authors also noted that kin foster care providers spoke of a strong commitment to keeping their family together even if some family members resided elsewhere (for example, in other parts of town). 

And according to the researchers, it was rare that children did not say they wanted contact with their siblings. One study writes, “Often the child has spent a good deal of time with the kin caregiver before the placement, which then suggests that the child experiences more continuity with a kin placement than with foster care placement at a stranger” (Andersen and Fallesen, 2015, p. 85).

Placements that support pre-existing relationships, rather than ones that attempt to forge new ones, will have advantages for all the stakeholders involved, as the children are less likely to end up in the system again, are going to feel more familiarity and greater support from their foster caregivers, and are going to be able to deepen trusting relationships with trusting adults, which will reduce the negative effects of being removed from their homes.

By comparison, studies offer a grim picture of the ways in which some non-kin foster parents treat foster kids. Specifically, they discovered that many of the sample children in their research felt they were treated differently from the foster parents’ biological children. And compared to other children in the home, they did not have the same educational materials or clothing. They also reported being hit when they made mistakes. (Kuyini et al, 2009) This would seem to suggest that when possible, kin placements are highly preferable for the children involved, whether those kin relationships are biological or fictive.

Possible problematic areas and implications for Child Protection workers and agencies

Kinship placements are not free of concerns, however. Many Child Protection workers, regardless of race, find kin placement extremely difficult. In fact, “Despite the increased use of kinship foster care, social workers, scholars and politicians still disagree on its advantages” (Andersen and Fallesen, 2015, pg. 68). Some of the issues associated with kin placement are:

  1. Kin providers may not attend mandatory trainings.
  2. Kin providers may not turn in background checks in a timely manner.
  3. Kin providers may feel that the system is working against the family’s way of doing things and breaking family traditions.
  4. Kin providers may feel that they do not have to follow CPS’s rules, since some providers are aware that the law makes it difficult for a Child Protection worker to remove a child from kinship care.

One study describes children in kin foster homes having lower reading scores, and the same paper cites studies that show that some kinship placements are unwilling to utilize resources to help enhance the well-being of the child (Font, 2014). In addition, many researchers agree that children in kinship placement are at a disadvantage due to economic struggles, living in poorer neighborhoods, higher risk for poorer health, and low educational levels. Several studies have found that kin placements have a greater risk of hostile environments and conflicts in the home.

They may also experience the psychological symptoms of parents who abused their children since kin foster homes will place children in, or in the same family system as, the home where their parents were raised, which might have a history of family dysfunction. Kiraly and Humphreys note that kinship placements might do poorer jobs of supervising kids in terms of contact with their parents.

They may want to support parent-child relationships, but those attempts can be complicated by family dynamics. “Enmeshed in the family system, and grappling with conflicting emotions associated with the kinship care experience as caregivers frequently are, this may be setting the scene for distress for everyone involved” (Kiraly and Humphreys, 2016, pg. 236).

When biological parents realize they are likely to lose their parental rights, they often respond by providing Child Protection agencies with the names of possible kin placements. But if the child has already been placed in non-kin foster care, this can lead to another upheaval for the child and for the foster family. So prioritizing kin care can actually lead to further complications and upheaval in some cases.

And just as the child’s race can impact their experience, so can the identity of the Child Protection worker. A 1999 survey of 261 urban, metropolitan and rural child welfare professionals found “distinct differences by race of the worker on the perception of kinship foster parents being more difficult to supervise than non-kinship families” (Beeman and Boisen, 1999, pg. 327).

Essentially, Caucasian respondents were significantly more likely to report trouble dealing with kin foster families than respondents of color. Beeman and Boisen found that workers had difficulties with kinship placement families understanding the role of the worker and reunification and permanency options, among other issues.

This study was conducted in 1999, but as a Child Protection worker today, I have found there is still a difference between the experience of Caucasian Child Protection workers and those of color when dealing with questions of kin placement. Since all Child Protection workers are looking for the best possible placement for children, we might all benefit from a conversation about the benefits and challenges we see in various contexts and how we can take another’s perspective for greater clarity overall.

The role and impact of fictive kin placements

The role of fictive kin in the lives of abused children is still unclear (Brandell, 2000), but it is certainly true that children will benefit from any positive support that can counter the experiences of the neglect and abuse faced by children experiencing out-of-home placement.

Research suggests that fictive kin, or as Blair and Blair call them, “lay professionals” or “professional parents,” are often needed to help abused children transition. “At one time in our history, the extended family provided an alternative. If the biological parents could not do the job of childrearing, a grandparent, an aunt, or an uncle would.

Today we must create other alternatives, which leads to the idea of professional parents” (Blair and Blair, 1990, pg. 200). The authors also felt that children benefit from informed people in their lives, whether they are parent educators, best friends, or members of the church. They feel that Child Protection agencies and therapeutic intervention might not be enough.

“Persons who are naturally endowed with the gift of compassion or have learned it through life’s experience may need no special training to be effective healers and are especially suited to working with abusive parents as lay therapists” (Blair and Blair, 1990, pg. 213).

So both kin and fictive kin are crucial to the psychological and emotional development and well-being of victimized kids, though their specific role may be unclear. But what does that mean for Child Protection agencies? Do they matter?

The role of Child Protection workers

It is a well-established fact that many Child Protection workers are overwhelmed. The lack of pay and high turnover make it challenging to provide the high-quality interventions of a social worker rather than just managing caseloads.

But peer consultation is a valuable tool, and given the time constraints, few social workers have the time and/or experience to consult with peers outside of team meetings and training. This could result in a low quality of care for children. For example, a study by Beeman and Boisen notes discrepancies between how minorities and non-minorities regard kin. Particularly since the issue of kin placement can be so tricky, when professionals do not have the time or inclination to consult with their peers outside of team meetings or training, they might be missing valuable insight into how to serve a child.


Although research about kin foster care placements was encouraging, it was difficult to truly explain why. For example, given that minority kids are over-represented in the Child Protection system, did the research favor kin due mostly to racial factors?

Furthermore, it was still unclear how positive kin placements were able to get over the hurdles associated with them, given the psychological disadvantages of kids who enter the foster care system. More specifically, just because a child is placed with blood/kin relatives, that does not make them experts.

How were these providers able to address and work effectively with children with psychological conditions such as oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, depression, anxiety disorders, learning disabilities, ADHD, fetal alcohol syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorders, and eating disorders, to name a few?

When the subject of fictive kin is added, all the research suggests that they are trying to do their best but are up against major challenges, often dealing with the challenges of kin placement as well as the challenges of non-kin placement.

The other underlying factor in placement success is the Child Protection worker themselves and their skillset when working with such a population.

Many professionals have higher credentials (LICSW, Ph.D, etc.) but are missing skills for working with certain groups, especially in the Child Protection system. So given the range of evidence, the question became: how much responsibility should be placed on the Child Protection worker, as the professional in charge of the case?

In my opinion, the best possible solution to this challenge is for Child Protection workers to take an honest look at their values and explore whether they are self-disciplined and mature enough to handle this work. In addition, during the hiring phase, supervisors might focus less on credentials and more on an overall look at the person’s skills.

For example, what therapeutic framework does the professional believe in? Who are some of their favorite authors in the field? Make sure that the worker is able to talk about child developmental stages, that they have some knowledge about child and teen brain development and different self-expressions abused kids might demonstrate, and ensure that a Child Protection worker has the ability to transcend what the child is going through now and see the whole child.

It might also be useful for Child Protection workers to remember that they are not only case managers but also social workers who went to school and learned therapeutic skills (clinical or not) such as empathy, support, engagement, and so forth.

Many minority Child Protection professionals were raised in conditions similar to those experienced by the children they serve, which is one of the main reasons they can relate to difficult clients. They may be biased against some non-minority peers, especially any who come across as sympathetic to their experiences but have little or no contact with minorities outside of professional settings.

People might view this as condescending, which would not promote supportive relationships. And all Child Protection workers need to be free to be open with their co-workers and management about their experiences without being seen as unprofessional. This can help improve peer consultation, which will improve outcomes overall.

Regarding kin placements, one possible solution is for Child Protection workers to allow family members to express feelings or self-doubt, without the family worrying that the worker is going to report their concerns to the court system or ask for the removal of the child.

And if the research suggests that kin placements put children at a disadvantage in terms of reading level or potential for recreating negative relationships, then one possible solution is to help foster families learn how to be objective and support the child in a new way. With support, they can experience the system from a non-subjective point of view, especially if we ensure the kin foster family that we do not expect them to disregard their idealism and personal beliefs; we are always here to support children and foster families, in whatever way makes them most successful.

It is clear to me that there is a lot of work to do to support kin, fictive kin, and non-kin foster homes, as well to as improve conditions for Child Protection workers to support their professionalism and growth. But if we ask the right questions and are never afraid to hear the answer, we can continue to serve all children and families better.

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