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

09/01/2001


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

Executive Summary

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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.

  • Financial Assistance. Kinship caregivers often face tremendous financial burdens when they add a new member to their family. Many are poor; two in five kinship care children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. Moreover, many kinship caregivers are grandparents who are often retired with a fixed income. 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. Many kin do not know that they are eligible for these programs, while others report not wanting a hand out or contact with public agencies.
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.
  • Information and Emotional Support.  Support groups offer caregivers a source of emotional support and practical information. Both kinship caregivers participating in the focus groups and program staff consider support groups a valuable and helpful service.
  • Mental Health Needs.  Administrators as well as the kinship caregivers themselves identified the importance of mental health services for many caregivers and their children but also noted that this type of service is typically not included or easily accessible.
  • Child/Respite Care.  Because a large share of caregivers work outside the home, they often need assistance in accessing and paying for child care. Many older caregivers voiced the need for respite time from the demanding role of caring for a child.
  • Legal Assistance. Kin caregivers need affordable legal assistance in making decisions about securing custody of the child in their care. Many kinship caregivers who are eager to adopt or take guardianship of the children in their care reported significant barriers to completing the process. One of these barriers is financial. 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.

  • Financial Assistance.  For child welfare clients, alternative programs may provide financial assistance as an alternative to an adoption or foster care payment. These payments may be monthly payments to kin who agree to assume legal guardianship of children who were in state custody due to abuse or neglect (subsidized guardianship). Alternative programs can also provide monthly financial assistance (beyond TANF) for kin who act as foster parents, but who do not complete the traditional foster parent licensing process. States can and have used the flexibility afforded by TANF to fund both subsidized guardianships and alternatives to foster care payments.

    Several states are also providing additional financial assistance to kinship care families in the welfare system by providing supplemental payments beyond the child-only grant as well as a host of services targeted to kinship care families. In addition to monthly financial assistance, many alternative kinship care programs provide emergency financial assistance, or assistance in meeting basic needs through food or clothing banks.

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.
  • Supportive Services.  Case management is an important component of many alternative kinship care programs. For families involved in the child welfare system, alternative programs can supplement the case management services provided by child protective services workers. For welfare clients, alternative programs can assess and help meet the needs of child-only grant recipients, even if employment is not the goal. Case management services provided by alternative programs often include periodic visits to the relative's home, on-going contact with clients if needs or circumstances warrant more intensive interaction, referrals to other programs and services as needed, and advocacy for clients in a variety of settings. 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.
    Support groups for kin caregivers were identified by administrators and caregivers as a particularly needed and valued service.

    In addition to case management, support groups for kin caregivers were identified by administrators and caregivers as a particularly needed and valued service. Other supportive services provided by alternative kinship programs include respite care, child care, education/mentoring programs, transportation, health care, and mental health or counseling services, resource and referral, legal information, and services for the children of the caregiver.

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.
  • Define the target population.  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. This decision will likely have far reaching implications for how the program will be administered, funded, and staffed. One decision to be made is whether to serve families involved with child welfare, those outside the system, or both. Within child welfare, policy makers must decide whether to target all kin caring for children in state custody, those who cannot or do not want to be licensed, or those in which the state does not take custody. Outside of child welfare, policy makers may consider targeting all kin, those who receive TANF child-only benefits, or those who themselves are low-income.
  • Do not underestimate the need for services.  In each of the sites visited, program administrators expressed surprise at the extent and diversity of the needs of kinship care families. As a result, some of the programs expanded very quickly, more quickly than anticipated. Program administrators spoke of the growing pains they experienced not having sufficient staff and adequate facilities. As programs grew, administrators noted that is was hard to monitor service delivery and in hindsight, would have liked to spend more time up front developing operations procedures and guidelines.
  • Get buy-in from the courts.  Each of the child welfare administered programs visited had some difficulty getting family court judges to fully understand and support the alternative kinship care program. Some program administrators suggested that they would have been wise to involve the courts earlier in the planning process so that the courts would understand the rationale and goals of the alternative programs.
Administrators noted many advantages to operating alternative kinship care programs through private, community-based organizations.
  • Tap into the strengths of private community-based agencies.  Administrators noted many advantages to operating alternative kinship care programs through private, community-based organizations. The most cited reason was that public agencies, especially child welfare agencies, are not well regarded by kinship care families. In contrast, kinship caregivers noted that private agencies were often part of their community and were there to help them, even when they were under contract from the child welfare system. Administrators also noted that private agencies are not as hampered by administrative regulations and thus have more flexibility in staffing and service delivery. However, if an alternative program is designed primarily to provide financial assistance, administrators believe that the program is best operated by a public agency.

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.


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