The Dangerous Classes: Why is Kinship Care the Hot New Thing?

In my last post, I explained why kinship foster care is the ideal out-of-home placement for children in foster care. The concept of extended families taking care of each other’s children is not new. Even today, millions of children are being raised by their relatives in informal kinship care, where government agencies are never involved. The modern increase in kinship care was a result of legislation intended to alleviate the nation’s decades-long foster home shortage. With their back against the wall, lawmakers are finally supporting the types of policies we should have used all along: placing kids with their families. Why did it take so long?

In this post, I will discuss the history of the Child Welfare System with a focus on socioeconomic class, and how that history impacts our system today. The forerunners of today’s Child Welfare System were right to focus on placing kids with families but were wrong about which families were best. That history helps explain why kinship care has been historically disfavored.

I. The Origins of the American Child Welfare System: The Children’s Aid Society and Mass Removal of the Poor

The beginnings of child welfare law are a murky affair. There are large gaps in information due to poor or nonexistent record-keeping, and the records that are accessible are mostly about white children and families. The informal, private system of care in the late 1800s was composed of charity organizations rather than government entities. Courts gave these organizations quasi-judicial power to remove children from homes deemed unfit. The boom of charity organizations that sought to better the lives of children took place in most major cities as the 19th century drew to a close.  Although information on this subject is limited, New York is a helpful historical example because it has been a populous city for hundreds of years and records of social services efforts are readily attainable.

When Charles Loring Brace established the Children’s Aid Society in 1854, it was the foundation of the United States’ modern foster care system. In the late 1800s, the CAS transported an estimated 200,000 children from New York City’s orphanages into the Midwest, where rural families adopted them. The history as it is understood frames the CAS as pioneers in child advocacy, but this is an idealized interpretation of the organization. In reality, the CAS were referred to by their contemporaries as “baby-stealers.” The CAS viewed poverty as the problem and middle-class life as the solution.

Fueled by a desire to save children from their working-class families, many of the children adopted out by the Children’s Aid Society were not orphans at all. Orphanages in this time period were not only homes for orphaned children but also served as a type of group home for children whose parents could not care for them. For poor and working-class families, it was common practice to board a child in an orphanage while the parents got back on their feet. Children were gathered from orphanages, the streets, and even their own homes. In many cases, the children placed by the Children’s Aid Society and similar organizations became indentured servants in their adoptive homes.

Many early policies morally condemned the poor. One theory about this relies on the early structure of New York City. Middle-class New Yorkers lived a structured life that separated women from men, and children from the working lives of their parents. Children were sheltered from the urban environment and encouraged to play and learn. In contrast, the lower classes often lived in much closer quarters, and several members of the family usually had to work. Alcohol and crime were associated with poor neighborhoods, and children begging or stealing to eat were known as “street rats”. In this divided city, child welfare efforts began in earnest to try and improve the lives and values of the working class by making them more like the middle class.

Starting in 1854, the Children’s Aid Society removed children from the purportedly dangerous conditions in immigrant communities in New York City. Its rationale was not to remove children from parental maltreatment, but rather to give the children a “suitable” environment to grow up in. In this period, New York City was home to a large population of European immigrants. Many of these people were working class and lived in the city’s least expensive housing, tenement housing. Charles Loring Brace, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society, referred to his impoverished New York neighbors as “the dangerous classes.” The belief was that children were malleable and removing them from their parents meant they would avoid maturing into the working-class archetype of immorality. The result was a network of “orphan trains” that took children out of the cities’ orphanages and out into the Midwest. The Children’s Aid Society transported an estimated 200,000 children to new families on orphan trains between 1854 and 1929.

The likely reason the Children’s Aid Society is considered the foundation of our current child welfare system is that it took children out of orphanages and placed them in adoptive homes. Decades after the CAS began its work, the White House held its first conference on the care of dependent children. The conferees concluded that “home life is the highest and finest product of civilization.” Among the recommendations given at that conference was a focus on placing children with families instead of institutions.

In 2019, we find ourselves in a similar situation. Instead of orphanages, many foster children reside in group homes. Despite frantic efforts to increase the number of available foster homes, the United States has been in the midst of a foster home shortage for decades. We have not solved the puzzle of how best to care for abused and neglected children, and we have always needed more foster parents than we have. In other words, Charles Loring Brace’s solution— placing children with foster parents rather than kin—did not work, yet we hold it up over and over again.

Research tells us we were wrong to think that it was better for children to be raised by non-relative foster parents, even if they can provide economic resources the biological family cannot. It is crucial to recall that the foundation of our system came from a time when very little was known about child development. It has only been a few decades since advances in neuroscience and developmental psychology have revealed the vital importance of parental bonding and familial ties. This may have influenced the focus on wealth as qualification for parenting in early child welfare policy but is no longer appropriate in the modern era.

II. The Dangerous Classes Today: How Continued Class Bias Weighs on the Modern Child Welfare System

A major barrier to increased kinship care is unreasonable requirements for foster home approval. Standards for out-of-home placement are not the minimum accommodations for the health and safety of a child. They constitute an ideal situation. Many happy, healthy children who are not neglected or abused grow up in conditions that do not measure up to these standards. For example, a foster home must have a separate bedroom for the child to sleep in. While in some situations, children are permitted to share rooms with each other, even kinship caregivers are required to have multiple sleeping areas. These minimums are not consistent with the real-life needs of a child. The implementation of these standards can be devastating to families seeking kinship placement, especially given the cost of housing in California. Many relatives of foster children are likely to face financial difficulties that will only be increased by the addition of a child to the home. We have failed to address this reality.

Making requirements for kinship placements more easily attainable is a crucial step to meeting the demand for foster placement. We know that the benefits of kinship care are myriad. It is wrong for the system to deny a child those life-changing benefits because a relative who is willing to provide care cannot meet these requirements. Additionally, relatives need more support from local and state governments when it comes to raising a foster child, both in the form of financial support and in providing information about additional aid programs. Instead, they are making it more difficult for them to step forward.

It is also important to stop removal in the first place. It was not until 1993—over 100 years after the courts began sanctioning child removal—that Family Preservation and Family Support programs were added to the Social Security Act. Now called the Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program (PSSF), Title IV-E of the Social Security Act is the current source of federal funding for child welfare programs nationwide. The inclusion of the knowledge about child development was reminiscent of the goals originally set by the Children’s Bureau in 1919, which determined that child welfare law requires “careful reconsideration” to ensure that “new provisions should be incorporated in harmony with the best experience of the day”.

Like orphanages and similar institutions in the late 1800s, a child’s involvement in the modern child welfare system is often a temporary one. Children whose parents are unable to care for them may be removed from home for a period of time and placed in a foster family. The court then orders the parents to complete a set of requirements, often including drug and alcohol treatment programs or parenting classes, before the child can be returned to their home. Funds from PSSF are directed to these programs, which are intended to rehabilitate a parent so that the child can safely return home. Once the child is returned to the parent, the court will usually require the parent to participate in programs for a designated period of time to ensure that the parent has made progress and the child is safe in their home. The temporary nature of this process is yet another reason that kinship placements are superior: extended family members are statistically more likely to maintain connections with the child’s birth family.

Major legislation on a national level in the very recent past is also an essential factor in this discussion. Federal laws such as the Family First Prevention Services Act (FFPSA) bring vital changes that must be implemented. The FFPSA, in short, supports an increase in kinship placements by expanding the allowed uses of Title IV-E funding to include providing services for children within their birth home or with relatives. These children would not have to be in official foster care to get funding and must only be “candidates for foster care”. We have yet to see the impact of this legislation. A culture shift is being force-fed into the child welfare system, and now is the time for the messy business of enforcement.

Some changes can be made in the current system to encourage a rapid increase in the percentage of kinship placements. One is the implementation of policy that requires more than “reasonable efforts” to find relatives. Today, many data resources are available to support such efforts, and organizations such as California’s Family Finding, who specialize in locating distant or unknown relatives, are becoming more common and accessible to courts. It is crucial that before placement with strangers is considered, all possible efforts have been made to find relatives. The impact is just too important to give up easily. Furthermore, only those children who are truly unsafe in their birth homes should be removed. Compassionate services that support at-risk families can go a long way in this effort.

Making progress for foster children is not just legal work. A massive part of lasting change is social. Outside of work in the courts and legislatures, programs around the country are joining the support force to keep kids in their birth homes. The large majority of children in foster care end up there because of neglect- and more often than not, it’s poverty, not neglect. A mom who can’t afford around the clock babysitters but has to work multiple jobs might end up in hot water with child protective services if her child is alone at home. As one article points out, parenting is an endless series of judgement calls, and you’re going to get some wrong. A problem with parenting while poor is that fewer resources are available in hard situations.

Aiding low-income families is both a social and an economic effort. In New York City, the Group Attachment Based Intervention (GABI) program is providing a kind of “Mommy and Me” class to parents with open prevention cases in the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). This is a great example of targeting the real problem, a deficit of resources, instead of demonizing parents who are struggling to make ends meet. In New York, 73% of cases reported to ACS are neglect cases, and this statistic is fairly uniform across the country. Are programs like this a sign of changing times? Parents in the system are too often former foster children who experienced abuse while in care and are now fighting to keep their biological children in their care. The GABI program is a pilot program among others in New York that are trying to heal the relationship between child welfare services and the population they serve.

Preventative care is essential to the restructuring of the child welfare system, but there are times when children cannot remain safely in their homes. In that situation, more effort must be made to place children with their relatives. In the past few years, some progress has been made in state and local law to encourage kinship placement. California’s Continuum of Care Reform has made strides with its Resource Family Approval program (RFA). This program is specifically designed to streamline foster placement standards. Passed in 2016, the RFA put into place new requirements that more closely resemble actual minimums for child care. One of the goals of Continuum of Care Reform and the RFA program is to move away from congregate care and to place children in permanent, safe homes. The new requirements meant that all existing foster homes had to be relicensed. For the first time in the state’s history, kinship placements in California now receive the same amount of financial support as non-relative foster parents. There have been some hiccups in implementation of the RFA program, resulting in a serious delay in approval that left many families without funding. Unsurprisingly, the delay in funds forced many children out of the homes of relatives and into foster or group homes. In response to issues caused by the implementation of the new RFA guidelines, California passed two assembly bills providing interim funding to families who were awaiting approval. Similar implementation complications are plaguing CCR’s quest to reform group homes.

A prime example of current struggles in reform implementation is Los Angeles County, California. When RFA guidelines changed, L.A. County faced some of the toughest numbers to work through when approving resource families, and their struggle drew attention to the issue. Because of its sheer size and soaring rent prices, L.A County. has faced acute crises in its foster care system for a long time. The county is now taking steps to alleviate the strain on its child welfare system by facilitating more kinship care. Social workers and other child welfare officials in Los Angeles point to criminal waivers and space at relatives’ homes as the biggest hurdles. Today, new Emergency Response teams now do same-day home assessment and initial background checks so that children do not have to spend any time in a facility or non-relative foster home. Social workers now expedite criminal waivers for potential relative caregivers when the record is only misdemeanors. The recent changes made there are part of an encouraging trend in child welfare law.

Unfortunately, our country has a long history of shying away from giving poor Americans government aid, and kinship care is no exception. Foster care has been failing for a long time, and relatives are picking up the slack, but they’re also picking up the whole bill. 23 states provided more than half of all relative caregivers with no financial support between 2012 and 2016. The number of children in care is growing, and so is the percentage of relative caregivers. As I argued above, we should be encouraging more relative placement. But it’s unconscionable to do so and ignore the disparity in compensation between relative caregivers and non-relative foster parents. When a relative gets a call in the middle of the night, and they’re faced with the choice of letting a child go into foster care or bringing them into their own home, resources shouldn’t be the first reason to say no. In Georgia, licensed foster parents are paid $26 to $30 per day while unlicensed relatives receive $17 to $21 per day. The message is clear: “official” foster parents are more important. The peril of foster-adjacent, unofficial relative caregivers may be preventing children from growing up in a home that would truly be best. Relative caregivers need to have a simple path to becoming licensed foster homes, and that needs to happen all across the United States.

Foster parents are all too often stereotyped as being “in it for the money”. People with their whole heart in the process should not be penalized for their altruism. That applies to both kinship caregivers and non-relative foster parents. It is important to consider the harms of these and other stereotypes. The simple fact of the matter is that raising kids costs money, and every day the government withholds adequate funding from resource families is a day a child may have less than he needs.  

We are taking the first steps as a nation to improve the lives of foster children, but this is only the beginning. By understanding its origin story, we can better identify problems and their potential causes within our current foster care system. When we recognize that the Children’s Aid Society’s family focus was only one part of the solution, we now have the opportunity to shed the antiquated and biased notions within their methods. It’s true that children need to be with families, what we were missing is that they need to be with their own families. We now have an obligation to integrate our modern knowledge into law and social programs.