FORMAL AND INFORMAL KINSHIP CARE
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
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
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:
- In 1994, approximately 2.15 million children, or just
over 3 percent of all children in the United States, were
estimated to live in the care of relatives without a parent
- Nationally, the prevalence of kinship care probably
increased between 1983 and 1993, and it certainly did not
decrease. There is no evidence of any increase in kinship
care among the white (non-Hispanic) children in recent
years; all observed growth in kinship care has been among
white Hispanic and non-white sectors of the population.
- Non-Hispanic white children are substantially less
likely to live without their parents in the care of
relatives than are the children of any other racial/ethnic
group. African American children are most likely to live in
kinship care settings, at levels four to five times as great
as those for white non-Hispanic children. The gap between
African Americans and the other ethnic groups widened
throughout the 12 year period examined.
- Kinship care has been more prevalent in the South, for
children living outside of Metropolitan areas, and for older
children, although the size of the differences due to each
of these factors has diminished gradually over the 12 years
About Kinship Caregivers:
- Roughly two-thirds of kinship caregivers are the
child's grandparent . About half of the kinship caregivers
are currently married, while over 85 percent of the single
kinship caregivers are female.
- The kinship caregiver population is much older than the
parent caregiver population. Although over 95 percent of the
parents who live with their own children are below the age
of 50, over one-half of all kinship caregivers are 50 years
of age or greater.
- Compared to parents who live with their own children,
kinship caregivers tend more often to be currently
unmarried, to be less-educated, to be unemployed or out of
the labor force, to live in poverty, and to receive benefits
through government social welfare programs.
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.
- The national pattern of child living arrangements in
1990 showed most American children living with at least one
of their own parents. Over 70 percent lived with two
parents, 20 percent with their mother only, and 4 percent
with their father only. Just over 2 percent of all children
lived with relatives (parent absent), and just over 2
percent in the care of unrelated persons.
- Although this fundamental pattern persists across all
states, substantial variation in the distributions is seen
between states. The percentage of children living with two
parents varies from under 62 percent to over 83 percent.
For kinship care, state percentages varied from under 1
percent of all children to well over 3 percent. Much of
this variation follows regional lines, with the southern
states consistently showing the highest levels of kinship
- In every state, older children (6-17) are more likely
to live in kinship care settings than are younger children
- In general, kinship care levels across states tend to
be positively associated with levels of mother-only care,
and weakly or negatively associated with father-only and
unrelated care. The levels of kinship care and mother-only
care also each vary directly with the total percentage of
children not living with two parents, while father-only and
unrelated arrangements do not.
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:
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:
- Informal kinship care is far more common than formal
kinship care. In the four states combined, only 15.5 percent
of all kinship children were in a formal foster care
- Levels of informal kinship care are rather similar
across each of these four states, while the levels of formal
kinship foster care vary dramatically.
- Younger children in kinship care are more likely to be
in foster care than are older kinship care children. Formal
kinship levels were 58 percent higher for 0-5 year olds than
for 6-17 year olds, while informal kinship levels were over
twice as high for 6-17 year olds as for 0-5 year olds.
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.
- In two states, New York and Missouri, formal kinship
foster care appears almost exclusively in the primary urban
place, and is virtually absent across the balance of the
state. In California and Illinois, formal kinship is still
concentrated in the primary urban place and a few other
- Informal kinship care is also consistently higher in
the primary urban places than in the balance of each state,
although it is distributed far more evenly than formal
- In larger cities, where formal kinship care is most
common, there appears to be an inverse relationship between
the levels of formal and informal kinship care. This might
suggest that the children in the two types of kinship care
are drawn from the same pool of children, and that the
observed differences in formal versus informal care levels
between cities are mostly due to different agency practices
involving the use of formal kinship care.
Looking only at formal kinship foster care:
- In each of the four states, African American children
are more likely to experience kinship foster care than are
children from other racial or ethnic groups. Overall,
African American children are about eight times as likely as
all others to be in formal kinship placements. The racial
effect holds across regions and across age groups.
- This racial effect and the "primary urban place"
effect become compounded because of the high representation
of African American children in the primary urban places in
each state. The interaction can be huge: for example,
African American children in New York City are one hundred
times more likely to be in a kinship foster care placement
than are non-African American children in the remainder of
New York State.
- In California and Illinois, the race appears to be a
stronger predictor of kinship foster care levels than
primary urban place. In New York, the "urban place"
factor appears to be a stronger predictor of kinship foster
care than race.
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"
Looking at characteristics of these groups:
- Compared to the AFDC/Relative group, the formal kinship
care group is younger, overrepresents African Americans, and
is disproportionally comprised of children from Cook County
(Chicago). No gender differences are apparent. Both of these
groups are younger and more likely to live in Cook County
than the remainder of Illinois's informal kinship care
- Compared to AFDC/Parent cases, the AFDC/Relative cases
are more likely to have two or more adults present and the
caretaker is more likely to be currently married. But, the
relative caretakers are significantly older, and four out of
five are the child's grandparent.
- The Illinois formal kinship care group more than
tripled (from 8,000 to 27,000) between 1990 and 1995, while
the AFDC/Relative group remained constant at 16,000
- Within each racial category, the prevalence of
AFDC/Relative cases is similar for children from Cook County
and children from the remainder of Illinois, while the
prevalence of formal foster care is more than twice as high
in Cook County than for the balance of the state. For both
types of care, the prevalence of kinship care for African
American kinship exceeds that of "all others"
combined by ten times or more.
It was possible to track movements of individual
children between these statuses across the 5-year time
period (via annual snapshots).
- Most children "stay" in their current status
from year to year. Over 70 percent of AFDC/Relative children
and 80 percent of formal kinship children can be expected to
remain in their current status after a given one-year
- Viewed as a transition from their current
status, AFDC/Relative children are about twice as likely to
move into formal kinship care as are AFDC/Parent children,
although the likelihood of such a change was small (less
than 2 percent per year) for both groups.
- Viewed as sources of transition into formal
kinship care, a new entrant to kinship foster care is ten
times more likely to have moved from an AFDC/Parent setting
than from an AFDC/Relative setting. The apparent anomaly
between this and the previous finding is explained by the
fact that the AFDC/Parent population is more than
twenty-five times as large as the AFDC/Relative population.
- Even though less than 1 percent of AFDC/Parent children
are expected to move into kinship foster care in the course
of one year, over one-half of all new children in kinship
foster care moved into this status from AFDC/Parent
- Children who move between the different AFDC and
kinship settings tend to be younger, while children who "stay
put" or who leave the system entirely tend to be older.
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:
- The difficulty of clearly defining family
relationships, as opposed to just the relation of members
to the household head, in much data collected through
surveys. Presence or absence of a child's parent is often
not identifiable for complex households.
- Kinship care arrangements are relatively uncommon, so
only censuses, very large population surveys, or specially
targeted surveys can enumerate a sufficient number of
kinship care cases to support a meaningful comparative
- Having access to individual-level data is extremely
important in order to allow observed relationships to be
controlled for such key variables as race/ethnicity and
Some possible next steps include:
- Maintaining a baseline of information on kinship care
by continuing to monitor the annual CPS results and by
supporting more detail in the analyses created from them.
- Extending the aggregate reporting from census data to
provide more detailed information on the living arrangements
of children, particularly to classify reported data by
- Extending the work in formal kinship care to more than
four states, possibly by accessing the new AFCARS data being
reported directly to HHS by the states.
- Continuing new efforts to create linked and integrated
information resources describing the full range of
children's contacts with social services and other public
systems. This information is potentially rich for
describing process, child needs, and outcome indicators.
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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