"Hardwired"? ...to a Degree
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His work, based on behavioral biology research findings, suggests that evolutionary concepts such as degree of relatedness, paternity uncertainty and sexual effects have a lot to do with how we treat members of our extended family—behavioral tendencies arising from our evolutionary history—that can affect how different types of kin will invest in a child entrusted to their care.
Herring is one of the few legal scholars in the country to examine the implications of behavioral biology on child placement practices. His hope is to collaborate with researchers Jeff Shook and Sara Goodkind from Pitt’s School of Social Work in order to provide new knowledge to a foster care system hampered by limited resources and a shortage of foster homes.
The child welfare system has increasingly looked to a child’s extended family for foster care, known as kinship care. It is generally perceived that children in kinship placements have a stronger sense of belonging and experience more stability and continuity in their lives.
But, Herring is quick to point out that caseworkers often assume “that any kin placement is preferable to a non-kin placement, with caseworkers failing to draw distinctions among types of kin when they decide to place a child entering foster care.”
And these distinctions can make a difference, especially when it comes to the high-stakes, highly-charged decision-making surrounding a child’s initial placement. Typically, child placement decisions have been made in chaotic, time-sensitive situations. In the crunch of time, explains Herring, “there is an absence of full investigations of potential kin foster parents. The lack of a research-based device for decision-making constitutes a serious gap in foster care policy and practice.”
Poor initial decisions often lead to inadequate care, frequent disruption of care, difficult moves and, subsequently, poor outcomes. And what is intended as a temporary placement frequently becomes a lengthy stay of two years or more in foster care.
Herring hopes his work can help caseworkers make a better-informed initial placement decision.
He suggests that not only are children likely to receive better care in kinship placements, but that they are likely to fare better with certain kin and less well with others. Behavioral biology studies indicate that kin are likely to invest more in certain biologically-related children and less in others. Herring draws on these studies to hypothesize that certain types of kin are likely to invest more in a particular foster child, resulting in better outcomes for the child.
“This is because the closeness of the biological relationship varies among different types of kin,” says Herring. He explains that, based on the degree of relatedness, approximately 50 percent of one’s genetic material is shared with a son or daughter; approximately 25 percent with a second-degree kin member such as a grandchild, niece or nephew; and 12.5 percent with a cousin, and so on. This declining “genetic interest” correlates with declining favorable, altruistic tendencies.
Evolutionary theory also posits that a man cannot be as certain as a woman that a child is biologically related to him. He has a degree of paternity uncertainty that arises from the fact that he did not carry the child for nine months and give birth to that child. This notion supports the belief that paternal kin will invest less in the care of a child than maternal kin. Likewise, research substantiates the evolutionary concept of sex effects related to parental care—namely, women tend to invest more in child care than men.
Based on these findings, Herring hypothesizes that, all else being equal, a child will likely receive better care in a placement with her maternal grandmother than with her paternal grandmother. And a maternal grandmother will likely provide better care to her granddaughter than will the child’s patrilateral uncle (her father’s brother).
Herring has taken his hypothesis one step further by creating a hierarchy of second-degree kin for foster care placement, beginning with the maternal grandmother, followed by the mother’s sister, father’s sister, etc.
Herring’s research, together with his preliminary hierarchy, could be helpful to caseworkers faced with time-sensitive placements. And, perhaps, most importantly, it could lead to a choice of foster care settings that contribute to healthier child development and improved adult outcomes.
For that is the ultimate goal for public foster care systems.