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Relative Placement Vs. Foster Care

What is relative placement vs. foster care? Do they share any similarities or differences? Read on to find out.
Header image of family that has experienced kinship and relative placement vs. foster care

When a child welfare worker investigates a referral for child neglect, abuse, abandonment, and/or some other form of child maltreatment, the worker must make the decision of whether or not the child (or children) should be removed from the home. If it is determined that continued placement of the child in his/her home cannot be maintained safely, removal occurs. The question then becomes, “Where will the child be placed?” Well, there are a few different options, but it can be confusing. For example, what is relative placement vs. foster care? Do they share any similarities or differences? Read on to find out.

What Is Relative Placement vs. Foster Care?

Two types of placements are most common. Those include placement with relatives, and placement in non-relative foster homes. A relative placement is the placement of a child in the home of a member (or members) of the child’s extended family. A non-relative foster home placement is the placement of a child in a home with licensed foster parents who have no familial relationship to the child.

Some states recognize fictive kin in placement decisions. Fictive kin are people who are not related to a child (through blood or adoption), but who have some relationship to the child which may give them preference for placement over a non-relative foster family. This might include a godparent, a family friend, the adoptive parent of the child’s sibling, a neighbor, etc. Though many children are placed with fictive kin, we will limit the scope of the rest of this article to a discussion of relative placements and non-relative foster placements.

The Basics of Relative Placement

According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, which is a service of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, federal law requires states give preference in the placement of children in out-of-home care to adult relative caregivers over placement with nonrelated caregivers, “provided that the relative caregiver meets all relevant state child protection standards.”

Though each of the fifty states defines “relative” differently, there is consistency pretty much across the board that placement decisions for children must prioritize family connections. In some states, a non-custodial parent must be considered before any other placement. Grandparents are often second in line. Other relatives are to be considered before non-relative foster parents, but again, according to each state’s statutes and definitions of “relative.”

According to Child Welfare Information Gateway, “When a child is removed from their home and placed in out-of-home care, relative placement [vs. foster care] is the preferred resource because this placement maintains family connections and cultural traditions that can minimize the trauma of family separation.”

quote about family and relative placement vs. foster care

A Case Worker's Role

Generally speaking, when a child is removed from his/her home, the caseworker must do due diligence in searching for potential relative placements. This might include asking the parent(s) for names and contact information for all adult relatives of the child, contacting the relatives and informing them of their options in possibly participating in the care and placement of the child, and assessing the adult relatives in terms of both their willingness and suitability to provide a safe, stable, and supportive home for the child.

If a suitable home is found with a relative who is willing and able to care for the child, the caseworker will ensure that the home meets state requirements. That may mean the relative becomes licensed as a foster parent, but not all states require licensure. In some instances, the caseworker may give the relatives a provisional license to give them time to bring their home up to full licensing standards.

The Basics of Foster Care Placement

If the search for a suitable relative placement comes up empty, perhaps due to the relatives’ homes not meeting standards, the relatives’ unwillingness to accept placement, or the relatives’ untimely response to the caseworker’s inquiry, the child will likely be placed in a non-relative foster home. This happens quite often. In fact, according to the most recent (as of this article’s writing) AFCARS (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System) Report, 44% of all children in foster care as of 9.30.21 were in non-relative foster homes, while 35% were in relative foster homes. Among children who exited the foster care system through adoption in Fiscal Year 2021, 55% were adopted by their foster parents, while 34% were adopted by relatives.

Even if a child is placed in a non-relative foster home, or adoptive home, it’s important for the caregivers/parents to try to maintain the child’s connection to his/her biological family, as long as it is in the child’s best interests to do so.

After Foster Care Placement

Once a child is placed in a home, the system places similar expectations on the caregivers, whether they are relatives or non-relative foster parents. Both are expected to meet the child’s needs while supporting the case plan (which can be anything from reunification to adoption), keeping up with scheduled court dates, helping facilitate court-ordered visitations, making sure the child makes other required appointments, maintaining the required safety standards in the home, etc. Caseworkers will monitor the placement and make sure standards of care are being met, and that the child is safe, and hopefully thriving.

Support After a Placement

No matter if they are caring for a child that’s a relative placement vs. foster care placement, caregivers have many resources available to them to help them best meet the needs of the children in their care. States have funds to reimburse caregivers. Insurance is provided. Support from the caseworker is ongoing, as is access to therapists, medical providers, educational assistance, etc.

Churches (and relevant ministries) often also provide great support for people who have opened their homes to children, whether as relative caregivers or as foster parents. Churches and other ministries can help by meeting tangible needs, providing meals, offering respite care, providing a comfortable environment for family visitations, etc. To learn more about what churches and other ministries are doing to support children in foster care, as well as the adults who care for them, visit Wait No More’s Kinship and Family Allies learning hubs.

For more information on relative placement and the foster care system, visit here.


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