The Problem: The maltreatment of children is a tragically common occurrence in the United States with a devastating impact on the health of young Americans. The direct effects of child maltreatment for victims include injuries and a host of stress-induced harms including poor psychological health, obesity, eating disorders and suicide. Child maltreatment also indirectly harms public health by creating generational cycles of abuse; a significant portion of victims of child abuse become child abusers. In 2007, there were 3.2 million cases of child abuse in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control: Child Maltreatment Fact Sheet. While primary prevention strategies focus on identifying risk factors to stop child abuse before it occurs, establishing secondary prevention methods to limit the harms of abuse is also of great importance.
The Law: Kinship care is a legal arrangement in which a child welfare agency places a maltreated child under the direct care of a family member or family friend with a suitably extensive pre-existing relationship with the child. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1996) required states to give preference to family members when placing a child outside the home. 42 U.S.C. 671(a)(19). More recently, the Adoption and Safe Families Act (1997)reaffirmed the federal commitment and support for kinship care. Although states have adopted slightly different definitions of family and kin, kinship care is widely preferred among jurisdictions. For examples of kinship laws, seeCA Welf. & Inst. Code § 361.3 (California) and CO Rev. Stat. §§ 19-3-508; 19-3-605 (Colorado).
The Evidence: In a study sponsored by the Campbell Collaborative and also published in the Cochrane Guide database, Winokour et al. performed a meta-analysis on 62 studies that evaluated the well-being of children placed in formal kinship care versus those placed in traditional foster homes. Winokour et al. Kinship care for the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment. The Campbell Collaboration. January 2009. Their analyses showed that children in kinship care have better mental health functioning, behavioral development and placement stability than children in non-kinship care. No differences were found in the rate of reunification with biological parents or in educational attainment. Children in non-kinship care also accessed mental health services and support groups slightly more than kinship care children, though it is unclear, according to Winokour et al., whether this benefit was the result of need or accessibility.
The Bottom Line: According to a systematic review and meta-analysis sponsored by the Campbell Collaboration, kinship care placement produces better outcomes than non-kinship care for children that have been subject to maltreatment at home.
Additional Information: The Children’s Bureau of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has compiled a guide on state kinship laws: Placement of Children with Relatives: Summary of State Laws.