By Legal Intern Kelly Monahan
Benefits of Kinship Care
Kinship care – placing children with relatives rather than non-relative foster parents – is associated with significant benefits for children and youth, including improved mental and behavioral health. Specifically, kinship care may help mitigate the trauma of removal when children are placed with relative caregivers who they know and with whom they share a relationship. As a result, children and youth in kinship care are less likely to experience behavioral challenges compared to children and youth in other placement settings.
Children and youth in kinship care also experience greater placement stability compared to youth in other placement settings, which can help improve permanency outcomes, academic performance and development of meaningful connections. The reduction in placement disruptions for children in kinship care is associated with kinship placements more closely resembling the culture of the child's family of origin, enabling children to preserve their cultural identity and community connections. In addition, relative caregivers may be more willing to keep siblings together than non-relative caregivers, which can provide integral social and emotional support that may ease children’s transition to a new placement and prevent placement disruptions. Overall, children and youth with relational ties with caregivers report viewing their placements more positively, are more likely to report feeling loved and are less likely to report having tried to leave or run away compared to youth in non-relative foster care and group homes.
In addition, kinship care may reduce the time children and youth spend in foster care before achieving permanency and promote post-permanency stability, as children exiting from kinship care are less likely to re-enter foster care following reunification and guardianship compared to youth exiting from non-kin placements. Thus, kinship care has the potential to reduce the duration of out-of-home placements and help children and youth achieve permanency.
The New Jersey Kinship Legal Guardianship Act
Kinship care may be used as a temporary placement for children and youth or a pathway to an alternative type of permanency, known in New Jersey as kinship legal guardianship (KLG), where the relative becomes the child’s permanent guardian. Unlike adoption, KLG grants the child permanency while preserving parental rights – including the right to visitation and the right to regain custody of the children.
On July 2, 2021, Governor Murphy signed into law an amended KLG statute aimed at enhancing family resiliency and keeping families together when the state Division of Child Protection & Permanency (CP&P) files a court action to place a child into foster care because of abuse and/or neglect. The revised KLG statute prioritizes placement with relatives over non-relatives by requiring the Division to “make reasonable efforts to place the child with a suitable relative or person who has a kinship relationship” with the child. The KLG statute also reduces the time children and youth must reside in kinship care before becoming eligible for KLG from twelve consecutive months to six consecutive months, or nine of the last fifteen months. CP&P is also no longer required to prioritize adoption over KLG in cases where reunification has not been successful. Under the amended statute, more children and youth are eligible for a permanent KLG arrangement and sooner.
Challenges to Kinship Care and Guardianship: The Need for More Supports
Despite the benefits of kinship care and the potential benefits of the revised KLG statute, additional supports are needed to support permanency and reunification. The reduced timeline for when a caregiver may pursue KLG may create ambiguity regarding permanency planning for cases where children have been in out-of-home placement for less than a year. Under federal and state law, CP&P must make reasonable efforts to work toward parental reunification for one year following the child’s out-of-home placement. In those cases, CP&P can concurrently case plan where the Division prioritizes reunification while planning for an alternative permanency goal, such as KLG, if reunification is unsuccessful.
Under current practice in New Jersey, CP&P works with the child and the parent or legal guardian to identify the services to be provided to achieve reunification or another permanency goal. Ideally, the kinship caregiver should be part of this process, especially if a KLG arrangement becomes the permanent goal. But relationships between kinship caregivers and parents may be tenuous as the relative assumes custody of and responsibility for caring for their children. Without sufficient training and support, kinship legal guardians may have difficulty navigating complex relationships with the child’s biological parents and may be unprepared to assist children maintaining relationships with their parents. Children and youth in kinship care are also less likely to reunify with their parents. Additional supports, including relative caregiver training and effective family communication and engagement strategies, such as Solution-Based Casework, Family Team Meetings and child welfare mediation, are needed to achieve the goals of promoting family preservation and resiliency.