Nationally, around 28 percent of foster youth live with kin -- in other words, over 100,000 children. Children living with relatives often receive the short end of the stick -- regularly lacking health benefits, access to programs and college grants received by other foster youth -- but, seemingly, no one knows or cares to discuss the topic. Often, the media discusses foster care, yet does not go into the deeper complexities of the confusing child welfare system.
Usually, only a discontinuation of court involvement and a label of permanency differentiate traditional foster care placements and kinship placements. For example, imagine a child who lives with a relative for a dozen years and maintains traditional foster care status, before entering a kinship program. There is no differentiation in placement for that child between kinship and foster care, other than a subjective determination of permanency and a termination of court involvement. A child in the same circumstances might just as easily never enter kinship care, therefore having access to the benefits of foster care.
Kinship programs relegate youth out of the foster care system, eliminating court dependency, while never actually giving the benefits of adoption or reunification. These youth remain under legal guardianships, ending at 18, without any permanent parental ties. After entering kinship care, these youth not only remain without permanent parental ties, but also without permanent ties to the state.
The discontinuation of state dependency causes most of these youth to go without services given to traditional foster youth, such as Medicaid to the age of 26, qualification for federal college grants for foster youth, transitional housing, extended foster care, and so on. Working with foster youth, many come across these "loopholes," and wonder why they exist. Does the language mean for these circumstances to occur, or is it simply a problem of blurry legislation?
Most boggling, perhaps, is the lack of extended Medicaid to children in these placements. The extension of Medicaid for foster youth to age 26, by the Affordable Care Act, was intended to provide young adults without parental relationships the same benefits as others, who qualify to continue receiving health insurance under their parents until age 26. In kinship placements, legal guardianship ends at 18, putting these young adults in a situation where they do not qualify for extended health insurance through any parental relationship or the state.
In addition to the lack of healthcare, though, these young adults lack numerous other benefits provided to foster youth. One example is the CHAFEE Grant, which awards $5,000 a year to current and former foster youth. Those in kinship programs are unable to access the grant, as they do not fit the traditional parameters of foster youth. Due to many programs' definitions of foster care entailing court dependency, these young adults often cannot access transitional housing and other services, like free computers and phones.
Why does this distinction exist? The differentiation between a youth in a kinship program and a youth in foster care is obviously very subjective, and often misunderstood. Youth in kinship programs usually first enter foster care, after being forcibly removed from their parents, just like any other foster youth. In addition, unlike cases of adoption or reunification, these children never establish permanent parental ties.
In most states, entrance into kinship programs from foster care is voluntary, like California's Kin-GAP. The fact that entrance into the program from foster care is optional shows how ridiculous it is to deny children, whose guardians opt-in, services.
When entertaining Kin-GAP as an option, many agencies never inform caregivers of the future downsides for the child. This leads caregivers, many of whom are low-income and lack formal education, to opt into a program that seems to offer the benefits of lessened state involvement, without an understanding of the future drawbacks.
Children in these circumstances often lack the support they need to transition into adulthood, merely because of subjective and unclear distinctions in legislation. If these programs continue to exist, they should provide children with the same benefits as others without permanent parental ties.