Kinship care for the safety, permanency, and well-being of maltreated children

Child abuse and neglect are common problems across the world that result in negative consequences for children, families, and communities. Children who have been abused or neglected are often removed from the home and placed in residential care or with other families, including foster families. Foster care was traditionally provided by people that social workers recruited from the community specifically to provide care for children whose parents could not look after them. Typically they were not related to the children placed with them, and did not know them before the placement was arranged. In recent years many societies have introduced policies that favour placing children who cannot live at home with other members of their family or with friends of the family. This is known as 'kinship care' or 'families and friends care'.  We do not know what type of out-of-home care (placement) is best for children. 

This review was designed to help find out if research studies could tell us which kind of placement is best. We found 102 studies with 666,615 children that met the methodological standards we considered acceptable. Wherever possible we combined the data from studies looking at the same outcome for children, in order to be more confident about what the research was telling us. Current best evidence suggests that children in kinship foster care may do better than children in traditional foster care in terms of their behavioural development, mental health functioning, and placement stability. Children in traditional foster care placements may do better with regard to achieving adoption and accessing services they may need. There were no negative effects experienced by children who were placed in kinship care. The major limitation of this systematic review is that the quality of research on kinship care is weakened by the poor methods of the included studies. Implications for practice and future research are discussed.

Authors' conclusions: 

This review supports the practice of treating kinship care as a viable out-of-home placement option for children removed from the home for maltreatment. However, this conclusion is tempered by the pronounced methodological and design weaknesses of the included studies.

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Background: 

Every year a large number of children around the world are removed from their homes because they are maltreated. Child welfare agencies are responsible for placing these children in out-of-home settings that will facilitate their safety, permanency, and well-being. However, children in out-of-home placements typically display more educational, behavioural, and psychological problems than do their peers, although it is unclear whether this results from the placement itself, the maltreatment that precipitated it, or inadequacies in the child welfare system.

Objectives: 

To evaluate the effect of kinship care placement compared to foster care placement on the safety, permanency, and well-being of children removed from the home for maltreatment.

Search strategy: 

We searched the following databases for this updated review on 14 March 2011: the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL), MEDLINE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Sociological Abstracts, Social Science Citation Index, ERIC, Conference Proceedings Citation Index-Social Science and Humanities, ASSIA, and Dissertation Express. We handsearched relevant social work journals and reference lists of published literature reviews, and contacted authors.

Selection criteria: 

Controlled experimental and quasi-experimental studies, in which children removed from the home for maltreatment and subsequently placed in kinship foster care were compared with children placed in non-kinship foster care for child welfare outcomes in the domains of well-being, permanency, or safety.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently read the titles and abstracts identified in the searches, and selected appropriate studies. Two review authors assessed the eligibility of each study for the evidence base and then evaluated the methodological quality of the included studies. Lastly, we extracted outcome data and entered them into Review Manager 5 software (RevMan) for meta-analysis with the results presented in written and graphical forms.

Main results: 

One-hundred-and-two quasi-experimental studies, with 666,615 children are included in this review. The 'Risk of bias' analysis indicates that the evidence base contains studies with unclear risk for selection bias, performance bias, detection bias, reporting bias, and attrition bias, with the highest risk associated with selection bias and the lowest associated with reporting bias. The outcome data suggest that children in kinship foster care experience fewer behavioural problems (standardised mean difference effect size -0.33, 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.49 to -0.17), fewer mental health disorders (odds ratio (OR) 0.51, 95% CI 0.42 to 0.62), better well-being (OR 0.50, 95% CI 0.38 to 0.64), and less placement disruption (OR 0.52, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.69) than do children in non-kinship foster care. For permanency, there was no difference on reunification rates, although children in non-kinship foster care were more likely to be adopted (OR 2.52, 95% CI 1.42 to 4.49), while children in kinship foster care were more likely to be in guardianship (OR 0.26, 95% CI 0.17 to 0.40). Lastly, children in non-kinship foster care were more likely to utilise mental health services (OR 1.79, 95% CI 1.35 to 2.37).

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