On Their Own Terms:  Supporting Kinship Care Outside of TANF and Foster Care

Executive Summary

[ Main Page of Report | Contents of Report ]

Contents

Despite their vulnerability, kinship care families have historically received little attention from policy makers.

In 2000, 2.2 million children in the United States lived with a grandparent, aunt, sibling or some other relative — a living arrangement commonly referred to as "kinship care" — because their own parents were unavailable or unable to care for them. Kin often face significant challenges carrying out their caregiving role. They are typically caring for children who have experienced a traumatic separation from their parents, often as a result of abuse or neglect. At the same time, kinship caregivers tend to be older, have less education and lower incomes, report being in poorer health, and are more likely to be single than parent caregivers. The children in these families are also at a comparative disadvantage, scoring lower on measures of cognitive, physical, and psycho-social well-being than children in parent families.

Kinship care families constitute a significant and growing share of both the foster care and TANF cash assistance caseloads.

Despite their vulnerability, kinship care families have historically received little attention from policy makers. To the extent that social welfare agencies have offered kinship families support, it has been largely in the form of foster care payments through the child welfare system or cash assistance grants through the welfare system's cash assistance program (i.e., the Aid to Families with Dependent Children [AFDC] and, since 1996, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [TANF] program).

More recently, however, welfare and child welfare policy makers have expressed greater interest in developing programs and services that address various types of kinship families' needs. This has occurred, in large part, because kinship care families constitute a significant and growing share of both the foster care and TANF cash assistance caseloads. There is growing recognition that despite the fact that so many children are living in kinship care, kin caregivers have been largely overlooked when considering how policies can be designed to effectively support families.

In response to these developments, there appears to be an emerging trend on the part of states and localities to consider different strategies for meeting the needs of kin outside of traditional foster care or TANF programs. This report describes some of these efforts currently underway in a select number of states and localities. Through a variety of information sources, we identified 57 programs that could be considered "alternative" kinship care programs — defined here as initiatives specifically designed to meet the needs of kinship care families and that serve, at least in part, families referred by child welfare and/or TANF agencies. The majority — 34 of the 57 programs — are "subsidized guardianship" programs which provide on-going financial support to kin who take permanent legal custody of a related child who has been abused or neglected. Almost half of the alternative kinship care programs identified have been operating for three years or less, underscoring the fact that alternative kinship care programs are still a new and evolving phenomenon.

Almost half of the alternative kinship care programs identified have been operating for three years or less, underscoring the fact that alternative kinship care programs are still a new and evolving phenomenon.

Our findings are based primarily on written materials and telephone discussions with program administrators and site visits to seven alternative kinship programs or initiatives conducted between September and December 2000. The site visits included focus groups with kinship caregivers and interviews with program staff from a variety of agencies involved in the design or implementation of these alternative kinship programs. Below we highlight key findings and policy implications.

Characteristics and Service Needs of Kinship Caregivers

Kinship families are diverse.  A typical kinship care arrangement is commonly perceived as an elderly grandmother caring for a young, neglected child. Most caregivers are grandparents, but one-third are aunts, uncles, siblings, or other relatives. Moreover, while some grandmothers are elderly, many more are under age 60 and quite a few are in their 30s or 40s. In addition, kinship caregivers take care of children of all ages, from newborns to teenagers.

Kinship caregivers often do not receive assistance from a variety of income support programs for which they are eligible, including TANF, food stamps, and Medicaid.

Kinship care families have both financial and support service needs. The costs associated with bringing a new child into a caregiver's current living arrangement can be daunting, particularly for those whose incomes are fixed or limited and who may still be raising their own children. At the same time, the needs of kinship families are not merely financial. There are a range of services and supports that can make a positive difference for these families.

Caregivers noted that the legal fees for completing an adoption are at least $5,000, under the best-case scenario in which the adoption is not contested.

Alternative Kinship Care Program Models and Services

Alternative kinship care programs may be administered by public agencies-including administrative entities re-sponsible for TANF, child wel-fare, and aging services-or by private, community-based agencies.

A unique feature of alternative kinship programs is the diversity of administrative and program structures which are used to operate and deliver services.  Alternative kinship care programs may be administered by public agencies — including administrative entities responsible for TANF, child welfare, and aging services — or by private, community-based agencies. In part, this diversity reflects differences in these programs' orientation and goals, target population, service focus, and funding sources.

Alternative kinship care programs are funded through a wide variety of federal, state, local, and private funding sources.  Ten of the subsidized guardianship programs identified are funded through TANF while 14 rely on state funds and one relies on funds from the federal Social Services Block Grant. Of the 23 other programs identified, 4 receive TANF funds, 1 receives other federal funds, 13 receive state funds, 8 receive local funds, and 10 receive private financial support.

States can and have used the flexibility afforded by TANF to fund both sub-sidized guardianships and alternatives to foster care payments as well as a host of services targeted to kinship care families.

Alternative kinship care programs are diverse in the services they provide.  Some alternative kinship programs primarily provide financial assistance, others focus on providing non-financial, supportive services, and still others provide a combination of financial and non-financial services. While programs vary, it appears that those serving primarily child-welfare involved kinship care families provide roughly the same amount of attention to the child and the caregiver, while the programs serving primarily kin outside of the child welfare system appear to be more focused on the caregiver. Few made any efforts to work with parents to address whatever issues made them unavailable to be their child's primary caregiver.

Case management can be a particularly effective service for kin given the diversity of their needs and the fact that so many do not access the services for which they are eligible.

Lessons Learned about
Designing and Implementing Alternative Programs

Program administrators identified several key lessons they learned during the early development of their programs.

One of the first and most challenging steps in developing an alternative kinship care program is defining what segments of the kinship care population to serve.

Administrators noted many advantages to operating alternative kinship care programs through private, community-based organizations.

Policy Implications

Given the diverse needs and circumstances of kinship care families, many public and private agencies have a role in supporting this vulnerable population. Policy makers at both the federal and state level, from child welfare, welfare, aging, and other health and social services agencies, are increasingly recognizing that traditional public support programs have not been adequate or appropriate for meeting the needs of kinship care families. This study identified a variety of alternative strategies for policy makers to consider.

Child Welfare

If child welfare agencies are going to continue to use kin as foster parents they need to acknowledge their fundamental differences from non-kin and respond accordingly.

Regardless of when and how states choose to use kinship caregivers, child welfare policy makers must understand that kinship care is a unique phenomenon that touches all parts of the child welfare system. At the front-end, policy makers have also argued that the existing framework for financing and supporting kinship care may unintentionally give caregivers incentives to enter the already over-burdened child welfare system. At the same time, many child welfare agencies are seeking strategies to use kin as a resource to prevent the removal of children from their parents' homes. For example, at least 25 states are implementing Family Group Decision Making models to involve extended family members in developing and carrying out service plans.

While experts and policy makers generally agree that children who cannot live with their parents can benefit from being cared for by relatives, there is still widespread debate as to when and how to use kin. If child welfare agencies are going to continue to use kin as foster parents they need to acknowledge their fundamental differences from non-kin and respond accordingly. For example, non-kin foster parents are already licensed when they first receive a child. In contrast, kin generally are not licensed as foster parents when they are thrust into their new caregiving role and thus are likely to have little or no knowledge about what their role is and how child welfare workers can assist them. Such differences suggest the need for alternative service delivery approaches for kin.

With the focus on permanency planning amplified by the Adoption and Safe Families Act, it is not surprising that many alternative kinship care programs focus on helping kin who want to make a permanent commitment to care for a related child. At the federal level, the policy debate has focused on whether the federal government should treat guardianship arrangements like adoption by allowing states to claim reimbursement under title IV-E for such arrangements. More than half the states have moved forward with subsidized guardianship programs and many receive federal funds (under title IV-E through waivers, TANF, or the Social Services Block Grant). Expanding title IV-E to provide an open-ended entitlement for subsidized guardianship could result in significant cost shifting.

TANF/Welfare

TANF agencies are just now beginning to consider how the flexibility of the TANF block grant could better serve kinship care families who have traditionally been served through the child welfare system or the TANF system.

The upcoming reauthorization of TANF in late 2002 sets the stage for policy makers to assess key policies and provisions embodied in the current welfare reform legislation. Families receiving child-only grants, many of whom are relatives caring for children, comprised a significant share (29 percent in 1999) of the total TANF caseload. TANF agencies are just now beginning to consider how the flexibility of the TANF block grant could better serve kinship care families who have traditionally been served through the child welfare system or the TANF system. It can be used to fund additional payments and services for child-only cases or it can be used to fund alternative programs for kinship families involved in the child welfare system.

At the state level, policy makers may also want to consider two technical changes. The first would be to broaden the definition of "kin." Under AFDC, the federal government defined rather narrowly which relatives could receive child-only AFDC payments. Under TANF, states define "relative caregiver." Many kin are not eligible to receive TANF because they are not closely related, if related at all, to the children they care for, but could be eligible if states expanded their definition of "relative."

The second technical change would affect child support enforcement policy. Child support cooperation requirements may place kin caregivers caring for children not involved with the child welfare system in a difficult position. They may choose not to comply with requirements out of fear that the birth parents will take their children back if they were forced to pay child support. States may want to examine their good cause exemptions and make sure they can be applied under certain circumstances for TANF child-only cases.

Other Agencies

There are many other public agencies that may have a role in addressing the needs of kinship care families. As one of the few public agencies that come into contact with all school-aged children, schools can play an essential role in identifying kinship caregivers that may need assistance. In addition, older kinship caregivers may be more likely to access services from an aging office than a TANF or child welfare agency, because they feel that the aging offices were set up specifically to meet their needs. As such, aging offices can play an important role in bringing kin together and identifying supports to meet caregivers' needs.

Overall, a variety of agencies are responding to the complex demographic and social phenomenon of kinship care, trying to better serve this group of families who do not fit into traditional, social service programs. This project investigated new programs designed to meet these families' needs.


Where to?

Top of Page
Contents

Main Page of Report | Contents of Report

Home Pages:
Human Services Policy (HSP)
Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE)

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)

Last updated:  10/29/01