Informal and Formal Kinship: Introduction


Informal and Formal Kinship Care


This report presents the results of work pursued by analysts at two separate research institutions in a collaboration designed to provide the best information available to describe the children living without a parent in kinship care arrangements in the United States.

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

The project included four separate, and relatively independent, research tasks -- each using a different set of information tools. Taken as a whole, they provide a greatly improved picture of kinship care in the United States and an enriched context for discussing these issues.

This report is organized into two separate Volumes.

  • Volume I contains an executive summary, a brief review of the literature on kinship care, the narrative portion of each of the four research reports, and a closing discussion.
  • Volume II contains the Figures and Tables that support the discussion for each of the four research reports in Volume I. Please note that Volume II is essential to reading the material in Volume I -- it is not an addendum or appendix, but an integral part of the four reports. The Tables and Figures are arranged apart from the narrative to encourage the reader to refer to them while reading the reports, without continually having to turn pages back and forth.

Section I, the Current Population Survey analysis, was prepared by Rebecca L. Clark and Karen E. Maguire of the Urban Institute. Sections II-V, analyzing census data and state- generated administrative record information, were prepared by Allen Harden at the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

This work was prepared for the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, United States Department of Health and Human Services, Contract Number HHS- 100-95-0021, Delivery Order #4. Laura Feig of the Office of Children and Youth Policy was the ASPE Contract Officer for this Task Order. Her contributions to the project were substantial, and her guidance, patience and support are appreciated greatly by the authors.

Review of Prioir Research on Formal and Informal Kinship Care

One of the more striking patterns of recent change in the American child welfare system has been major growth in the number of children in state custody who are being placed in the care of their own relatives. This rapid expansion of kinship foster care has not occurred uniformly across the United States; rather it has been concentrated in certain states and regions, and among certain racial/ethnic groups. However, the shifts have been sufficiently dramatic to have importance that is fully national in scope. In part, this broader importance is due to the substantial impact that kinship foster care has had on the national child welfare caseload. About 150,000 children, roughly one-third of all children in foster care, are currently placed in formal kinship foster care arrangements in the United States.

It might be argued that the emergence of widely varying policies and practices regarding kinship foster care placement reflects a climate of governmental uncertainty; individually, states are grappling with fundamental issues about their role and responsibility for dealing with the needs and rights of children and families. There are many bellwethers that kinship foster care is at the tip of deep and controversial public issues: among these are the broad proliferation of state policy responses, the absence of practical consensus at any governmental level, and the frequency with which actual practice mandates have been decided in the judicial system. It is an issue that is forcing a reconsideration of the role of foster care and the prevailing guidelines of child protection and permanency planning. It is an issue that forces us to determine mechanisms for evaluating the role of the nuclear versus the extended family, and for considering if there is any difference in public responses to the needs of either. And there is widespread concern that this issue is one that may become inextricably involved in the national discussion of poverty and welfare reform.

While the practice of placing some child wards of the state in the care of extended family members has been taking place for many years, the phenomenon of its widespread use didn't begin until the mid 1980's, and the awareness of kinship foster care as an important trend among child welfare analysts dates from the early 1990's.

For example, in an agenda-setting policy seminar held at the U.S. Capitol in January 1990 entitled "The crisis in foster care: New directions for the 1990's", the only mention of kinship care by one of the three national child welfare experts on the panel involved an acknowledgement that some states were meeting the problem of a reduction in available foster homes by placing more children with relatives (Ooms, 1990). The literature on kinship care is recent, and is not yet integrative. For the purpose of review, it will be separated into discussions that bear on description of a.) the recent growth in kinship care, b.) empirical comparisons of the characteristics and experiences of children in kinship care placements to those of children in more traditional non-family foster care placements, c.) discussions of the legal and policy issues which are involved in kinship foster care. This work will be discussed in section I.

To examine kinship foster care within a wider social context, and to anticipate some of the issues that can be expected to emerge in the process of national welfare reform, it is useful to consider the current and historical patterns of kinship care that occur without specific regard to the involvement of state custody and the child welfare system. Many children are cared for by relatives other than a parent, on a temporary basis or throughout the full term of their childhood. These arrangements do not require the state to take custody of the child, indeed most are privately arranged by agreement between the parent and the kin caretaker -- sometimes involving a legal transfer of authority or guardianship rights to the relative. For the purpose of this work, all such caretaker arrangements that are made without the state actually having legal custody of the child are considered together as informal kinship care, which is distinguished from formal kinship foster care. The literature describing trends in the living arrangements of children and specifically describing issues in informal kinship caregiving will be discussed in Section II.

A. Kinship Foster Care

Description of Kinship Foster Care Growth

The foster care population of the United States has grown rapidly over the past decade, following a period of relative stability. National estimates provided by the American Public Welfare Association suggest that about 442,000 children were in substitute care at the end of 1992, an increase of around 60% from the end of 1985 (Tatara, 1993). This increase has been attributed to many factors. Social explanations have included increased reporting of abuse and neglect, a change in drug usage patterns related to the spread of crack cocaine addiction, and increased levels of poverty. Child welfare system explanations have included increased durations of stay in care, relative reductions in caseworker staffing, and in many states, changes in policy required to obtain compliance with court-ordered reform.

The rapid expansion of kinship foster care as a common placement solution has occurred simultaneously with this recent period of rapid overall growth in foster care. National counts of kinship foster care are not available, as many states do not separate relatives from unrelated foster parents in their reporting systems. The HHS Inspector General obtained 1990 data from 29 states identifying 80,000 children who received foster care from relatives (HHS Office of the Inspector General, 1992). In the 25 of these states where trend data are available, the proportion of foster children in kinship placements increased from 18% in 1986 to 31% in 1990, with most of the actual kinship growth occurring in three states: New York, Illinois, and California. Recent trend data for these three states shows that the share of all foster care provided in the homes of relatives has continued to increase. Between 1988 and 1993, kinship services as a percentage of all foster care rose from 32% to 54% in Illinois, from 22% to 45% in California, and from 23% to 36% in New York (Goerge, Wulczyn & Harden, 1995).

Discussion continues as to whether the growth of kinship care is leading or following the general growth in foster care. On the one hand, a decline in the availability of traditional foster homes is often used to explain an increasing reliance on the use of kinship foster homes by state child welfare agencies. Between 1985 and 1990, the number of foster families declined by 27% while the number of foster children increased by 47% (National Foster Parent Association, 1991). On the other hand, the enhanced availability of foster care support to kinship families, and particularly the high foster care maintenance payments, is often put forward as an explanation for general foster care growth. Clearly though, the door has been opened for kinship foster care. A key Supreme Court decision in Youakim vs Miller (1979) determined that relative caregivers cannot be denied federal foster care benefits if otherwise eligible. HHS reported that 29 states required kinship preference in placing foster children in 1990 (HHS Office of the Inspector General, 1992).

Children in Kinship Foster Care

As researchers became aware of the growth in formal relative caregiving arrangements within the child welfare system, their initial efforts turned mostly towards characterizing this type of placement and evaluating the effectiveness of kinship care within the child welfare system.

The potential benefits attributed to kinship foster care are that it involves less disruption to the child than placement with strangers, in that the placement is connected to their existing personal support network, community, and cultural background. Many states have justified kinship preference as meeting the "least restrictive" guidelines of PL 96-272. Some early analysts argued that placement with relatives would increase the likelihood of reunification with parents by maintaining close family contacts (c.f. Hill, 1977). Potential problems attributed to kinship foster care are that it involves more protective risk by encouraging parental access, that it places children in care situations with undertrained, overburdened and often unsupervised custodians (Fein & Maluccio, 1992), that providing foster care payment to extended family member may deter reunification or adoption (Meyer & Link, 1990), and that it might represent excessive governemental incursion into the role of the family (Testa, 1994).

Descriptions of kinship foster care providers suggest that the caregivers are older, more often single, disproportionally African American, poorer, less educated, and less likely to be employed than non-kin foster parents (Berrick, Barth, & Needell, 1994; Le Prohn 1994). That foster parent training requirements are often waived for relative caregivers extends this description of kin caregivers having less resources. However, LeProhn also found that kin foster parents behaved more like biological parents by assuming more of the affective parenting responsibilities than did non-relative foster parents. The children in kinship care arrangements, apart from the ethnic differences, have not been demonstrated to differ appreciably from other foster children in a significant manner. Importantly, these children do not appear to be at higher risk of future abuse or neglect than do other foster children (Testa, 1994).

Kinship placements are more stable than non-kin foster care, in that the children are moved to another placement from a relative home far less frequently than from a non-family foster home (Tatara, 1993; Berrick, Barth & Needell, 1994; LeProhn & Pecora, 1994). Kinship placements also last longer than other placements, with lower rates of reunification and lower rates of all other discharges (Wulczyn & Goerge, 1992; Barth, Courtney, Berrick & Albert). In a pooled three-state study of five years worth of case histories, Goerge, Wulczyn & Harden (1994) found that the median kinship placement spell was 30% longer than other placement spells, even after controlling for the effects of year of entry, metro/non-metro residence, age, ethnicity, at entry to foster care, and state. Because kinship placements are correlated with African American ethnicity and urban residence, both of which independently contribute to longer durations, the gross impact of increased kinship care on duration and caseload size can be very large.

Examining factors related to observable outcome differences between kinship and other foster care, Iglehart (1994) looked at a sample of adolescents and found no real difference in educational and behavioral outcomes between kinship and non-family foster children, except that kinship foster children had somewhat fewer serious mental health problems. LeProhn & Pecora (1994) also found few differences in behavioral outcomes between kin and non-kin foster children. The one area where differences have been consistently observed involves access to services. Several research efforts have documented that kinship foster children receive less preventative health care and medical services , fewer caseworker visits, and less case planning and supervision (GAO, 1995; Dubowitz, Feigelman & Zuravin, 1993).

A consistent and controversial portrayal emerges from the literature on kinship care. On most observable measures, children in kinship care arrangements appear to doing as well or better than other foster children, although they have access to fewer service resources than do foster children in non-kinship placements. Kinship placements are more stable, but they are also more likely to be "permanent". Long-term kinship care as a permanent arrangement is not consistent with the current policy structure of most states, and the tension between policy and this reality has significant ramifications for child welfare planning.

Kinship Policy and Practice

The placement of foster children with relatives is not new, but before the 1980's this arrangement was atypical, and generally used in "specific" or last-resort situations (Kusserow, 1992). In federal policy, kinship care was first addressed in the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-608) which made explicit allowance for extended family placements. The Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act (P.L. 96-272), which is the primary federal blueprint for the present child welfare system, makes no specific reference to kinship care, although an early version of the bill did contain language requiring preference for relatives (Spar, 1993). However, the provision of the Act for placement in the "least restrictive" and "most family-like" setting has been interpreted by many state policy makers as justifying or mandating a relative preference.

Many states practiced a two-tier system of child welfare payment, where non-family foster parents were reimbursed at the foster care maintenance rate, and relative caregivers were reimbursed at the AFDC rate. While rates vary among states, the foster care rate is usually higher, and often much higher, than the AFDC rate. More importantly, the child-based foster care rate is additive in cases where multiple children are in care in a single household, while the incremental change in the AFDC rate is scaled down for additional children. In the landmark kinship care court case, Youakim vs Miller, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court decision that relatives who were otherwise eligible could not be excluded from federal foster care benefits.

Interpretation of federal policy and child welfare law has varied widely among the states. From 31 states who provided materials on kinship care policy, Gleeson and Craig (1994) found that these policies are based on varying combinations of statute, administrative policy, and case law. In 21 of states, relatives are the first priority placement resource for a child removed from home, and eight of these states require the agency to search for an appropriate relative caregiver. Seventeen states waive specific standards (most commonly training) for relatives to become "approved" caregivers. The primary difference between kinship foster care policies among states has to do with qualifications for reimbursement. Youakim vs Miller applies only to IV-E eligible children (those who were AFDC-eligible, who are physically moved from a residence, and who are cared for in licensed foster homes). While 16 of the 31 states evaluated will pay foster care boarding rates to all relatives, six of these states will only do so if the child is IV-E eligible, with the remaining kinship care cases receiving the AFDC rate. States also vary in whether they will pay the foster care rate to an "approved" relative home that is not licensed. As federal reimbursement remains tied to IV-E eligibility, these decisions have dramatic fiscal implications for the states, and great impact on the practical implications of kinship foster care.

Paying the full foster care rate to kinship care providers is easily justified as an issue of equality, in that relatives should not be penalized for providing the same service to the state for which a non-relative would be paid. However, the higher foster care payments may be acting as an enticement to bring kinship care units into the foster care system, and they may be providing an inducement to delay discharges and reunification efforts. As long as a significant discrepancy exists between foster care board payments and the AFDC rate, "perverse incentives" will exist in state and federal kinship care policy (Courtney, 1995). Even prior to the growth of kinship care, the "double-system" implied by IV-E eligibility was critiqued as leading to undesirable policies regarding children in need (Gershenson, 1990).

Gleeson & Craig also warn of the broader consequences that extended kinship foster care, by virtue of bringing more child needs under the auspices of the formal social services sector, may have the undesired effect of discouraging continuation of the informal helping systems of families and communities, and unnecessarily intrude on the helping process.

Largely due to a long history of court-initiated decisions, Illinois has been the state with the most inclusive policy towards kinship foster care, and has also had the most dramatic growth in what it terms "home of relative" (HMR) placements.

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services attributes this growth primarily to a shift in public definition of the responsibilities of the parent vs the extended family

(McDonald, 1995). While many other factors have contributed (e.g. Illinois was the defendant in the Youakim lawsuit, relaxed HMR approval standards replaced licensing, and a statutory preference for relatives was passed by the legislature), the period of profound growth in kinship foster care occurred after an Appellate Court decision (People vs. Thornton, 1990) led to a redefinition of neglect. Thornton was interpreted as requiring a shift from a "home-based definition, in which IDCFS takes protective custody only when conditions in the relative's home pose a threat, to a parent-based definition, in which IDCFS takes protective custody whenever the parents are derelict in their responsibilities no matter the quality of care that is available to the children" (Testa. 1994). This broadening of the state's protective jurisdiction led to a rapid increase in indicated neglect allegations for "lack of supervision" and to many additional cases where the state assumed custody of children from pre-existing informal kinship care cases, IDCFS considers the "blurring of boundaries" between formal and informal kinship care to be a fundamental problem in child welfare.

A clear finding of all policy reviews in the area of kinship foster care is that policy is far from uniform. Placement preferences, assessment procedures, licensing and approval regulations, case monitoring levels, payment criteria, and rate levels all vary from state to state. Undoubtedly practice can vary between administrative units within each state as well.

B. Informal Kinship Care

The literature on informal kinship care is far less prolific than that discussed for kinship foster care. In part, this is due to the fact that informal kinship arrangements have little basis in or relationship to formal governmental policy, do not implicitly require any activity from the social service sector, and have no budget line or immediate fiscal impact. Relative caregiving, care for children by extended family members other than parents, has held an important role in the social service net for children long before the state became so actively involved in child support and protection.

Historically, there has been a strong class and cultural component to the level of kinship caregiving. Testa (1994) describes historical data that document a persistent difference in the percentages of African American and white children in parent-absent families. From 1880 through 1980, between 10 and 12 percent of African American children under the age of 15 lived in non-parent families, while the corresponding percentage for white children varied between 2 and 4 percent . Historians claim that these racial difference in kinship care can be traced through African American adaptations to economic structures dating back to slavery (Hill, 1977; Billingsley,1972).

Most of the current literature on informal kinship care is contained in census reports and related publications. The topic area of the living arrangements of children, which includes informal kinship arrangements, tends to be dominated by analysis of the much larger and broadly significant trend towards the increased share of children living in single parent families. Analysts disagree about the current status and future role of the nuclear family, and the extent to which parenthood outside of marriage, marital disruption, divorce, and serial marriage patterns are leading to a redefinition of the role of the family unit in American society (cf. Popenoe, etc.) The fact of change is apparent, though. In 1993, about 70% of all children lived in family groups with two parents (including step-parents), and less than 50% of all children lived in traditional intact nuclear family arrangements. In 1950, over 86% of children lived with two parents and 70% in intact nuclear families. Correspondingly, the percentage of children ages 0-17 living in one-parent families, has increased from 7.8% in 1950 to 26.6% in 1992. The numbers of mothers that are single parents due to nonmarriage, separation, and divorce have all increased rapidly across this time period. While the literature focuses on the demise of the nuclear family, we are also seeing the results of both cultural change and public welfare programs that allow single-parent families to persist.

During the same time period (1950-1992) the proportion of children living in an arrangement with neither parent present has decreased from 6% to 2.7% of all children. It is unclear as to whether this trend represents a "decline" in extended family and non-traditional caregiving, or is primarily a reflection of the normalization of the single-parent family. This "neither parent present" category combines many possible statuses, including those that are discussed here as informal kinship care, formal kinship care, non-kin family care and non-family (group quarter) living arrangements. Because census and CPS based statistics investigate household relationships, these data can be used to separate kinship from non-kinship care. But because they enumerate relationships without regard to custody status, both formal and informal kinship arrangements are combined in all of these reports. All trend data based on the CPS results prior to 1983 must be evaluated in light of a disclaimer: the CPS misclassified some children by not recognizing certain individuals in non-traditional households as parents (Saluter, 1989, P20-399). This resulted in an consistent undercount of children living with one parent, with the resulting overcount being in the "other relative" caretaker category. When this problem was corrected between 1981 and 1983, it became apparent that the most noticeable effects of misclassification had showed in the distribution of living arrangements of African American children, where the correction caused an apparent decrease in the number of children living with other relatives from 1.02 million to 482,000 . The CPS figures from 1983 onward should be treated with greater confidence.

The 1993 CPS data (Saluter, 1994) are the most recent national data available on the living arrangements of children. Of the 66.9 million children in the United States in March 1993, 70.6% lived in two-parent families, 26.7% lived with one parent, 2.2% lived with some other relative, and 0.6% lived with non-relatives. Of the 1.84 million children living in arrangements without a parent, 55% lived with a grandparent, 23% with another relative (aunt, sibling, etc), 11% with a non-relative "foster" parent, and 10% with some other non-relative or in group quarters. It is not possible, as described above, to separate the kinship categories into informal care and formal foster care categories with these data. Thus, while over 97% of American children in 1993 were living with at least one parent, there remains a population of about 1.44 million living with relatives and another 0.4 million living with non-relatives adults only..

As might be expected, the living arrangements of African American children are quite different from the overall national pattern. Of the 10.7 million African American children in the United States in March 1993, 35.7% lived with two parents, 53.8% with one parent, 6.2% with other relatives, and 1.2% with non-relatives. Of the 784,000 African American children living without parents, 64% live with grandparents, 20% with other relatives, 11% in non-relative "foster" care, and 5% with other non-relatives or in group quarters. The living arrangements of Hispanic children are distributed in a pattern similar to those of the national totals, with the main exception being that only 37% of the Hispanic children in non-parent living arrangements live with grandparents, while 43% live with other relatives.

While the grandparent and relative caregiving described above involves "pure" relative care arrangements (i.e. the parents are both absent), the total number of children living in households maintained by a grandparent has increased from 2.2 million in 1970 to 3.4 million in 1993. ( A total of 4.3 million when all related non-parent householders are included). Indeed, children living in a grandparent home in 1992 are more likely than not to have one or both parents present in the household. This re-emergence of three generation households has been attributed to increased childbirth among single teen parents, higher marital dissolution, unemployment, and the high cost of maintaining housing. Spar (1993) has pointed out that many of these relatives and grandparents are actually raising the grandchildren, wholly or in part, even if the mother is present. These households are not included in the enumeration of kinship care units, but they do represent a segment of the parent-present category that can easily convert to kinship care. Because the potential relative caregivers are already present, departure of the parent for any reason would redefine these arrangements to a kinship caregiving situation.

Beyond using national population survey data to describe the magnitude of kinship care provision, very little information has been located describing kinship caregiving outside of the child welfare framework. In one effort sponsored by the AARP, a national survey of grandparent caregivers was performed (Chalfie, 1994). The national figures above clearly indicated that grandparents are the common types of relative caregivers. In describing this group, Chalfie found the median age to be 57 years, and that almost one-quarter (23%) are age 65 or older. Over three-quarters (76%) of grandparent caregivers are married, and 93% of those who are single are female. As a group, these grandparents have relatively low educational levels and have lower incomes than any other group of nontraditional caregivers. While the modal grandparent caregiver is white and urban, African American and non-metropolitan caregivers are represented in higher proportions than the national norm. This study also finds over one-half of grandparent caregivers residing in the South, with the remainder distributed evenly across the other three regions. The clear picture that emerges from this survey is that this population of substitute parents is older and commands less personal resources than most caregivers. The policy implication drawn by Chalfie is that this group should require strong public supports. While many programs do exist and are utilized by them, she also finds that many grandparent caregivers have found barriers while trying to access public services.

Many complex issues face grandparent caregivers -- financial support and assistance, health insurance and medical coverage, decision-making authority for the children, and various legal problems. In most cases, grandparents who have established some legal relationship ( through guardianship, power of attorney, or foster parent status) have an easier time than grandparents whose caretaking is based solely on informal agreements. 28% of grandparent caregivers receive AFDC (three time more than for other non-traditional households), far fewer are receiving the higher foster care payment. Some grandparents do not want to become involved with the foster care approval and licensing process, do not want supervisory interventions by caseworkers, and do not wish to cede custody and control of the child to the state. However, many others are willing to do these things in order to qualify for foster care support payments or to gain access to services obtainable through the child welfare agency. The policies and practices of state child welfare agencies vary widely, but perceived discriminatory treatment against grandparents by foster care agencies is a leading complaint among grandparent caregivers (Chalfie, 1994).

An extensive literature exists describing the behavioral, psychological and economic advantages that exist for children living in two parent vs one-parent families, and for children living in traditional nuclear families vs those in blended families (at least one step-parent, step-sibling or half-sibling present) (c.f. Hernandez, 1993e know very little about the composition of kinship care families, the number of adults present and the presence of own-children of these adults in the family.


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