Achieving Permanence for Children in Relative Foster Care: Relative Adoptions and Subsidized Guardianships

Bruce BoyerBruce A. Boyer, Clinical Professor and Director, Civitas ChildLaw Clinic, Loyola University Chicago School of Law

Summary: When supported with adequate financial and other forms of assistance, relative caregivers can do much to mitigate both the short- and long-term consequences of neglect and abuse. The author outlines new developments in and ongoing challenges to making relative placements.


Within the foster care system, over the past several decades, the formal placement of children in need of substitute care into the homes of relatives has become increasingly commonplace. Historically, members of minority communities in particular have relied heavily on informal kin-care arrangements for children requiring support outside of their immediate families.1 Since the passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act in 1980, however, child welfare systems have relied increasingly heavily on formal kinship care, often as an alternative to the placement of children in traditional non-relative foster care.2 Publicly funded kin-care arrangements have grown significantly in the past several decades,3 and the most recent federal statistics indicate that approximately 25% of all children placed in formal foster care are living with relatives.4

To a large extent, the growth of this trend has relied on developing social science, which has consistently demonstrated that relative placements tend to minimize the traumatic effect of removing children from their parents, enhancing both permanence and long-term outcomes for children in need of substitute care.5 Relative foster care can also afford significant benefits for parents and other extended family members, by facilitating the preservation of important family and community connections and—in some cases—eliminating the need for the state to seek the involuntary termination of parental rights.

When states seek to achieve permanence for foster children through relative placements, the financial limits faced by many families can present particular challenges. Studies that have collected data on the income of kinship foster caregivers have consistently found that they are significantly poorer than non-kin foster parents.6 Many relative foster parents also have disproportionately high needs based on circumstances related to their age, health, or status as single parents.7 Thus, in order to ensure the long-term stability of relative placements, states must take steps to ensure that the basic financial and other needs of the family are met. For these reasons, the availability of federal subsidies to support permanent placements may be especially important for children placed with relative foster caregivers.

For children in long-term relative foster care, permanence is normally achieved either through adoption or guardianship, each of which presents specific challenges for caseworkers and advocates. With regard to adoption, while federal subsidies are available to support virtually all adoptions from foster care, many caseworkers assume that relative foster caregivers do not wish to become adoptive parents. This assumption rests, to a large extent, on still widely-held beliefs that relatives do not support the termination of parental rights when the parents are their own kin, and do not want to be recast as legal parents when they are already comfortable in the role of grandparent or other kin.8 As a consequence, caseworkers frequently do not even explore adoption as a permanency option for children placed with kin.9 For many families, however, these assumptions are inaccurate. More recent research has demonstrated that a much larger percentage of relatives are willing to consider adoption than is often assumed to be the case.10 This may be particularly true for certain categories of relatives, such as aunts and uncles or family contemplating the adoption of younger children.11 It is thus especially important for caseworkers and advocates to communicate clearly with relative caregivers about their permanency options, and for supervisors and agencies to support this work with careful training and technical assistance.

Through recent federal legislative changes, long-term subsidized guardianship has become an increasingly important option in many states. Prior to 1994, federal law prohibited using funds provided to states under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act to support guardianship as a permanency option. This policy stemmed from the view that guardianship is less permanent than adoption and should thus be discouraged whenever it might be still be possible for a foster child to be adopted. In 1994, however, the Department of Health and Human Services invited states to apply for waivers of the limits on Title IV-E funds, which since 1980 have supported both foster care maintenance payments and adoption subsidies. This invitation enabled a limited number of states to conduct experiments aimed at measuring whether using Title IV-E funds to subsidize guardianships would enhance the achievement of permanency for children in foster care. Beginning in 1995, eleven states launched subsidized guardianship demonstration programs. Key findings from the evaluations of these programs established that subsidizing long-term guardianships boosts permanency rates, decreases out-of-home placements, limits the recurrence of maltreatment and reentry into foster care, and improves child well-being.12 Accordingly, with the passage of the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act in 2008, the federal government opened the door for all states to use Title IV-E funds to support the subsidizing of relative guardianships. Federal guidelines implementing ASFA limit guardianship subsidies to relatives but permit states to choose their own definitions of who constitutes a family member, authorizing broad rules encompassing tribal kin, extended family and friends, godparents or other “fictive kin.”13

As of July 2011, the federal government had approved applications to operate kinship guardianship assistance (“Kin-GAP”) programs in 18 states and the District of Columbia.14 These programs will significantly enhance the ability of child welfare agencies to achieve durable permanence for children placed with relatives who require some form of ongoing financial assistance to support the children in their care. States that have not yet submitted applications to operate federally subsidized Kin-GAP programs should be encouraged to do so. However, additional support is needed to ensure that the caseworkers whose participation is critical to the success of these programs are fully engaged and adequately trained. Evaluations of experimental programs have demonstrated that caseworkers’ attitudes towards relative placement and guardianship are major factors in determining permanency outcomes.15 Moreover, the failure to provide proper training about the details of permanency options has been identified as a significant variable influencing the successful implementation of experimental guardianship subsidy programs. This has been particularly problematic in Illinois, which launched one of the first and most significant experimental programs, and where the lack of proper training of workers prevented a substantial number of families from accessing critical services associated with that state’s subsidized guardianship program.16 Inadequate training and technical support continues to impact the timely achievement of permanency for children placed in foster care with extended family. It is thus imperative for advocates to ensure that they are fully informed about both the availability of guardianship subsidies and related services in their jurisdictions, and the specific eligibility requirements and parameters of those programs.

Relatives willing to provide extended care for children in need of substitute homes offer an important resource not only for the children in need of care, but also for their parents, siblings and other extended family. When supported with adequate financial and other forms of assistance, relative caregivers can do much to mitigate both the short- and long-term consequences of neglect and abuse. Current federal policy encourages the use of both adoption and guardianship as subsidized permanency options for children in kinship care, and it is incumbent on child advocates to ensure that these options are fully explored whenever children may benefit from long-term placements with extended family.    

1. See generally Carol Stack, All Our Kin: Strategies for Survival in a Black Community (1974).

2. Rob Geen, The Evolution of Kinship Care Policy and Practice, The Future of Children, Vol. 14, No. 1, 131, at 132 (Winter, 2004).

3.  Id. at 134.

4. U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, Child Welfare Info. Gateway, Foster Care Statistics 2009, at 4 (May 2011) (available at

5. Leonard Edwards, Relative Placement in Child Protection Cases” A Judicial Perspective, 61 Juv. & Fam. Ct. J., no. 2, p. 1, at 10-11 (Spring 2010).

6. Geen, supra note 2, at 135.

7. Id.

8. Mark Testa & Leslie Cohen, Pursuing Permanence for Children in Foster care: Issues and Options for Establishing a Federal Guardianship Assistance Program in New York State, p. 10 (June 2010) (available at files/PURSUINGPERMANENCEFORCHILDRENINFOSTERCARE_final_6-30-2010.pdf); Rob Geen, Finding Permanent Homes for Foster Children: Issues Raised by Kinship Care, Urban Inst. Series A, No. A-60, p. 3 (April 2003) (available at ); Jesse Thornton, Permanency Planning for Children in Kinship Foster Homes, 70 Child Welfare 593, 597 (2001).  

9. Geen, supra note 8, at 1.

10. Testa & Cohen, supra note 8, at 10.

11. Geen, supra note 8, at 3.

12.  See U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, Synthesis of Findings: Subsidized Guardianship Child Welfare Waiver Demonstrations, pp. 15-21 (2011) (available at

13. See U.S. Dep’t of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Program Instruction ACYF-CB-PI-10-11, § D (July 9, 2010) (available at

15. Synthesis of Findings, supra note 12, at 22-23.

16. Id. at 28.

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