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July 2012Vol. 13, No. 6Setting Limits to Support Reunification in Kinship Care

Kinship caregivers raising the children of relatives, especially relatives affected by substance abuse, need help from professionals to establish appropriate boundaries and set limits to their support, according to a new study published in the journal Families in Society. There are numerous benefits to placing children with kin; however, researchers found that kinship care arrangements in which parents perceive unlimited support and unclear boundaries regarding visits with their children can contribute to lower reunification rates.

Using indepth interviews with 26 mothers with histories of addiction and 20 professionals (including substance abuse, child protection, and parenting professionals), researchers identified the following types of kinship care arrangements and explored their impact on reunification:

  • "Limited family support" or "family support with parameters": Families had limited resources to offer or kin caregivers established clear limits to the support they would provide. Mothers focused more on treatment because they felt better knowing their children were with family; knowing the limits of kin's support motivated mothers to make changes necessary to regain custody.
  • "Enabling family support": Kin caregivers did not set clear limits or mothers perceived the resources and support as unlimited. Mothers continued to see their children, sometimes in violation of their case plan restrictions, and did not feel much urgency to achieve substance abuse treatment or child welfare goals.

The study found that mothers with limited support or support with boundaries reported greater service satisfaction and achieved higher rates of reunification; mothers with enabling support, which included about half the mothers in the study, reunited less frequently with their children, and their children spent more time in care. Several mothers receiving enabling support described the arrangement as "the best of both worlds," because they could continue their relationship with their children without feeling the need to address their substance abuse problems. The professionals in the study said this lack of urgency greatly interfered with reunification and described families' unlimited offers of support as counterproductive.

The author of the study advised that professionals have an important role to play in helping kinship caregivers to (1) understand the fine line between helpful support and enabling support and (2) effectively communicate their support to the children's parents. Professionals should encourage kinship caregivers to emphasize the temporary nature of their arrangement with parents and set healthy boundaries for the parents' relationship with their children during that time. Doing so may help parents achieve the goals necessary for reunification, resulting in better outcomes for children and families.

"The Best of Both Worlds: How Kinship Care Impacts Reunification," by J. M. Blakey, was published in Families in Society, 93(2), 2012, and the abstract is available on the journal's website: