By Allen W. Harden of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago and Rebecca L. Clark and Karen Maguire of The Urban Institute for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, June 20, 1997.


This report presents the results of work pursued by analysts at two separate research institutions in a collaboration designed to describe the population ofAmerican children living in kinship care arrangements.

The Task Order was to examine existing national data sources in order to describe the characteristics of children in kinship living arrangements, and to identify recent trends in the pattern of kinship caregiving. Particular importance was attached to developing information that could support comparison between formal kinship care arrangements (i.e. care provided by relatives as foster care under auspices of the state) and informal kinship arrangements (all other caregiving provided by relatives in the absence of a parent).

Kinship foster care has attracted much attention in recent years within the context of the child welfare system. The extensive placement of children with relatives has created a new, rapidly growing, and poorly understood segment of the child welfare caseload that has great impact on the size and nature of the foster care population in many states. Children in formal kinship placements can be viewed as a subgroup of a broader category of family-based alternatives to parental care -- the population of all children living in kinship care settings across the country. Most American children who live in kinship care arrangements are not foster children. We cannot yet determine whether most current kinship foster care placements are "formalizations" of kinship arrangements that would likely exist without agency intervention, or whether these are mostly new arrangements created as a result of recent child welfare practices. But it is clear that children in informal kinship settings are potentially of crucial importance for the child welfare system -- as a reference group, as a potential "feeder" population, and as an alternate model of caregiving.

By virtue of the similarity between formal and informal kinship arrangements, any policy actions directed towards one of these groups is likely to affect the other in a parallel or reactive manner, whether or not this is intended by those who frame these actions. Even though our understanding of the recent interdependence between these two kinship subgroups is weak, the importance of anticipating their future interrelationship becomes increasingly apparent -- especially as our questions move from the strict realm of child welfare policy into the broader arena of family supports and welfare reform.

This report presents the results of four separate, and relatively independent, research tasks, each approaching these questions with a different set of information tools. Taken as a whole, they provide us with a greatly improved picture of kinship care in the United States, and provide an enriched context for discussing these issues. The first task was produced by the Urban Institute, the remaining three by the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. A brief description of each task and a summary of substantive findings from each follows.

I. National Patterns and Trends in Kinship Care:

Section I describes the population of children in kinship care settings in the United States, the characteristics of these children and their caretakers, and trends that have been observed since 1983. These descriptions are based on information drawn from 12 years of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a large and ongoing national sample of the full United States population. At the national level, the CPS provides the richest and most reliable information available about children's living arrangements and households -- including identification of kinship care relationships. Information is collected about the children, their relative caretakers, and the families which they share. The following are among the key findings reported in this section.

About Children in Kinship Care:

About Kinship Caregivers:

The portrait of kinship care that emerges from the CPS is of a population of children that live in arrangements with strained resources of many types. This population is disproportionally composed of minority children being cared for by relatives that, as a group, show fewer advantages than own-parent caregivers.

II. Living Arrangement Patterns by State: 1990

Section II describes the living arrangement patterns for all children state by state. This analysis is based on data made available from the 1990 Census of Population. The census does not provide as much substantive detail as the Current Population Survey, but the estimates it provides are reliable for much smaller geographic areas.

A tentative argument is developed that higher levels of mother-only care and relative care appear to be direct products of higher levels of social disruption and family disorganization, because they consistently vary strongly and inversely with the proportion of children living within a traditional two-parent family structure.

III. Formal and Informal Kinship Care Patterns: Four States

Section III introduces data developed directly from administrative foster care records in four states: California, Illinois, New York, and Missouri. Kinship foster care counts obtained from these child welfare records are used to split the census-based counts of children living with relatives into the separate categories of formal and informal kinship care. This information becomes available in the form of aggregate counts for the four states and certain sub-state places.

Findings include the following:

Within each state, the analysis compares the "primary urban place" (i.e. Los Angeles County; Chicago City; St. Louis City; and New York City) to the "balance," or remainder, of the state.

Looking only at formal kinship foster care:

IV. Formal and Informal Kinship Care Dynamics in Illinois To gain at least one "window" for comparing characteristics of children in formal and informal kinship care settings, information was accessed from the Illinois Child Multiservice Database that is being developed at Chapin Hall. Individual-level records were examined for all recent (1990-95) child AFDC grant recipients and all foster children in the state. The population of AFDC children living in kinship care arrangements is treated as a biased sample of all Illinois children in informal kinship care -- sort of a "semi-formal" kinship group.

Looking at characteristics of these groups:

It was possible to track movements of individual children between these statuses across the 5-year time period (via annual snapshots).

V. Summary, Observations, and Potential Next Steps A final section summarizes these findings, describes some of the data limitations that acted as obstacles in the production of this report., discusses some conceptual issues in the study of kinship care, and proposes certain paths for future data gathering and analysis. Some of the issues discussed include:

Some possible next steps include:

The discussion concludes by arguing that kinship care arrangements should be studied within a framework that emphasizes their role in ongoing child and family processes. It is the context in which the need for kinship care occurs, and not the fact that relatives are providing care, that carries the information that has the most ongoing relevance to social policy formulation.

A much more refined body of information would be needed to support an effort to examine these processes, observe causes, track movements, classify kinship care cases, compare subgroups, and evaluate trends and changes. Information of this quality could only be gathered through a survey that is longitudinal and comprehensive in scope.

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