Examining the Benefits and Challenges of Placing Children with Relatives

Judge EdwardsHon. Leonard Edwards (ret.), Judge-in-Residence, Center for Families, Children and the Courts, California Administrative Office of the Courts

Summary: Judge Edwards outlines the many benefits of placing children who have been removed from the care of their parents with other relatives, and describes the challenges facing judges and others in making these placements.



Child welfare agencies and juvenile courts place thousands of children in out-of-home care every year. Current federal and state policies declare that relatives should be the preferred placement when children must be removed from parental care. Preference for relatives is a recent development. Around the year 1900, most children were placed in orphanages and other forms of congregate care. During the 20th century federal and state policy turned to foster care as the preferred placement. Policy makers viewed relatives suspiciously. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree was a frequent refrain. Over the past 30 years federal and state policies have shifted again, now favoring relatives over non-relatives and congregate care.

With the passage of The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 (P.L. 110-351), federal policy not only firmly declared a preference for placement with relatives. The legislation mandated that relatives receive notice of child protection proceedings; gave them a voice in those proceedings; and identified best practices for locating extended family members. This legislation singled out family finding, family group conferences, and guardian navigators as best practices for locating family members and engaging them in the child protection process. The legislation also offered federal grants for local jurisdictions to implement these practices.

Why Prefer Relatives?

Numerous factors contributed to the change in federal and state placement policies. Substantial social science research indicated that relative placement had advantages for the children. The research revealed that:

  • Children in relative care tend to be just as safe as, or safer than, children placed in foster care.
  • Relative placements provide more stability than placement with foster families, and if the child has to move, it is likely he or she will move from the home of one relative to another.
  • Siblings more often remain together in relative care, and are more likely to visit one another even if they reside in separate relative homes.
  • Relative caregivers are more likely to continue the ties with the child’s birth family.
  • Children in relative care are more likely to remain connected to their community, including their school.
  • Relative caretakers facilitate parent-child visitation more easily since the caregivers will likely favor reunification and will be less likely than foster parents to compete with the parents for permanent custody of the child.
  • Relatives are more likely to invest time and care for a child who shares a blood tie. This includes a willingness to care for the child for as long as needed.
  • Placement with relatives will generally be less traumatic than placement in an unfamiliar home because the children will be living with someone they know and trust, particularly if the non-relative differs racially or ethnically from the child.         
  • Placement with relatives supports the transmission of a child’s family identity, culture, and ethnicity.
  • Placement with relatives eliminates the unfortunate stigma that many foster children experience.
  • Children fare better in relative care than in foster care along numerous axes.
  • The child placed with relatives knows his or her own family, sees family resemblances, and understands how he or she fits into it.

Perhaps the most compelling reason for the policy shift to relative preference has been the actions of American families taken without any state intervention. When parents find themselves unable to care for their children, they naturally turn to relatives for assistance. Currently approximately 2,500,000 children live with relatives, mostly with grandparents, all on a voluntary basis.[1]

Remaining Issues

Relative preference may be the law today, but significant challenges remain. First, fathers must be identified, located and engaged. Our nation’s ambivalence about engaging fathers, particularly those who are not married to the mother, has resulted in fathers being peripheral to the child protection process. Yet the father’s side of the family represents on average one-half of the child’s relatives. If we are serious about relative placement, we must locate fathers and engage them in the child protection process. 

We must also identify, locate and engage relatives. Relative preference statutes mean little without rigorous social work immediately following removal of the child from parental care. The social worker must learn from the parents who the child’s relatives are, contact them, and encourage them to become involved in the child protection case. The sooner this is accomplished, the more likely that the relatives will become engaged. The law now gives relatives the right to appear before the court and speak on behalf of the child. Just as importantly, relatives have the ability to participate in group decision-making processes such as family group conferences, team decision making, family team meetings, and court-based mediation. All of these group decision-making processes have spread throughout the United States and have been recognized as best practices in the resolution of the difficult issues presented in child protection cases.

Delay in relative engagement often means that they will not be selected as placement for the child. The child protection system is notoriously slow. Fact finding hearings may take months to complete. Placement issues may take over a year. Yet in the meantime the child will be living with a family and will naturally become strongly connected to that family. The late-arriving relative often finds that the foster family will be preferred because of the connection between the child and that family.

Relative placement is good social and legal policy. However, effective implementation of relative preference requires early identification and engagement. It requires effective judicial oversight of social worker actions regarding locating and engaging fathers and relatives. It also requires opportunities for relatives to participate in decision making, preferably through group decision-making processes. Engaging relatives is a best practice, one that will serve the best interests of children separated from their parents.[2]

Editor's Notes:

Please also see the following articles by Judge Edwards:

For additional information on the fatherhood initiative, please see the November 2009 issue of The Judges' Page entitled "Identifying, Locating and Engaging Fathers in Dependency Court Cases."

[1] US Census, 2000; Grandfacts, A State Fact Sheet for Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children, at http://www.aarp.org/relationships/friends-family/grandfacts-sheets/. Other estimates place the number much higher. A. Kornhaber, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, The Grandparent Guide, at http://www.grandparenting.org/

[2] Whenever fathers and relatives are engaged in the child protection process, child welfare workers should fully explore domestic violence issues. Has there been domestic violence in the family? Who are the primary aggressors? Domestic violence occurs in a high percentage of child welfare cases, and children and others need protection from its reoccurrence. 

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