Today @ Colorado State has been replaced by SOURCE. This site exists as an archive of Today @ Colorado State stories between January 1, 2009 and September 8, 2014.

Research / Discovery

Safe homes for children

October 19, 2009
By Paul Miller

Of all the decisions made by families or welfare agencies, none could be as difficult and wrenching as placing a child in foster care. But research findings by Marc Winokur, director of Colorado State's Social Work Research Center in the School of Social Work, show that children placed with kin instead of non-relatives tend to do better in terms of behavioral development and stability.

Safe, secure environments

Marc Winokur, director of Colorado State's Social Work Research Center in the School of Social Work.

The idea of kinship placement isn’t new. Long before foster care systems were established, children who needed a safer, more secure environment outside their immediate families were sent to relatives such as grandparents or other kin.

But as the latest estimates by Child Welfare Information Gateway show, of the 510,000 children in foster care, almost half were in non-relative foster family homes, while 24 percent lived in relatives’ homes.

Kinship placements growing

That trend is now reversing to favor kinship placements, Winokur says, and that’s generally a positive direction. In fact, the Kinship Care Legal Resource Center calls it “a growing phenomenon across the United States.”

More than 6 million children – about one in 12 – are growing up in households headed by grandparents (4.5 million children) or other relatives (1.5 million children).

Groundbreaking review

Winokur’s two-year, groundbreaking review analyzed 62 research studies, primarily from the United States but also internationally. In many countries, the number of children removed from homes and placed with relatives has increased over the past 15 years. However, Winokur says that very little research has been conducted to compare the benefits and shortfalls of the two options.

“Although finding the single best placement for kids is very difficult, we do know that children in out-of-home placements typically struggle with more educational, behavioral, and physiological problems than do their peers,” he says.

Significant caveats

Kinship placements may work out better, but significant caveats remain. Families with foster kids often have better access to mental health services and other relatively expensive programs that aren’t available to kin. And a foster home is a much better alternative than relatives who might be as abusive to children as immediate family members had been.

Still, a noteworthy advantage of kinship placements in general is the more stable environment, familiar home life, and network of support from family that children might not otherwise receive.

Blood bond is important

Lee Rosén, professor of psychology in the College of Natural Sciences, says that, all things being equal, the best solution is to keep kids with their families.

Lee Rosén, professor of psychology in the College of Natural Sciences, says that, all things being equal, the best solution is to keep kids with their families. If that’s not possible, then kinship care is the next best alternative.

“It’s the best outcome because extended families have an investment that goes beyond simply caring a lot,” Rosén says. “The societal bond – the blood bond – is important in terms of extended family relationships. That bond provides a sense of belonging that’s vital to all of us.”

Personal experience

Rosén, an expert on child psychopathology and a licensed psychologist, also sees advantages to foster care, a viewpoint that comes from deep personal experience.

“My parents did foster care for 30 years, starting when I was about 10 years old. It was amazing to see how much support was available in the foster care system, including therapy and case work support. That support was sure needed, because our house was full of kids with pretty significant problems. I grew up with three kids who were severely autistic and other kids who were depressed and suicidal, sexually and physically abused, learning disabled – all of that.”

Unending "buts"

But – and there are unending “buts” – at a certain age, children in foster homes typically become driven to seek out their biological family. “Even though there might be court orders to the contrary, those kids are desperate to find their blood family,” Rosén says. “I’ve seen that over and over again. Foster homes can be safe environments where kids know they’re loved, but they also know there’s a disconnect somewhere. Kinship care means the child may not have to deal with feeling like they’ve been ripped from their family.”

“There’s a lot more out there to discover,” Winokur says. “We’re just scratching the surface psychology of these issues.”

Originally published in the Fall 2009 Colorado State Magazine.