Children in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Child-Only Cases with Relative Caregivers. 2.4 Informal and Formal Relative Caregiving Arrangements


Relative care has a variety of forms, with different licensing requirements, financial supports, and service availability.

While children living with relative caregivers may be receiving services from the TANF system and the child welfare system simultaneously, the communication between these two systems is not clearly defined. As such, a family receiving a TANF child-only relative caregiver benefit may have no contact with the child welfare system, or the child may be involved with the child welfare system at varying levels. Such dual-system involvement is not consistently tracked by states and is therefore difficult to assess.

This section defines the range of caretaking arrangements that may apply to children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers, and describes the eligibility and licensing requirements, financial support options, and service availability that differentiate them.

Because relative, or kinship, care has many forms, it is helpful to think of it as a continuum of interventions and support (Boots and Geen, 1999). At one end are private kinship care families, with no contact at all with the child welfare system and contact with the TANF system through a child-only grant if pursued and received. These situations usually occur when a parent arranges for a relative to care for a child for an extended period of time on an informal basis. In the middle of the continuum are voluntary kinship care arrangements, in which families are known to the child welfare system, but the child has been placed in the relative's care by the parent rather than through public agency custody. While these children are not formally a part of the child welfare system, some may be receiving support services. Both private and voluntary kinship arrangements are also known as informal kinship care, existing outside the legal authority of the child welfare system (Gleeson, 1999).

At the other end of the continuum is kinship foster care, in which relatives are caring for children in state custody and receiving ongoing attention from the child welfare system. Depending on state practice, these caregivers may receive either foster care payments or TANF child-only payments. Kinship foster care is also known as formal kinship care.

It is important to note that terminology for these arrangements varies among authors and disciplines. The distinctions among these groups reflect the various circumstances leading to the nonparental placement, as well as policy variations across state and local jurisdictions. The likelihood that children who live with relative caregivers will be supported by TANF child-only payments (rather than foster care support) will therefore vary among jurisdictions. Table 2-4 summarizes these arrangements and the estimated number of children involved in each.

The key difference between private or voluntary (informal) kinship care and kinship foster care is that children in kinship foster care (formal kinship care) are in the states' legal custody, rather than in the custody of their birth parents or relative caregivers. Caregivers in the foster care system are subject to higher eligibility requirements and supervision. Kinship foster care providers may also receive greater financial support and access to services than voluntary caregivers, although this is not uniformly true. These distinctions are described as they apply to informal kinship care and kinship foster care, in which caregivers may receive support from either foster care stipends or child-only TANF.

Eligibility. Foster parent eligibility is based on criteria defined by states within the boundaries of federal law. Requirements include training, criminal background checks, and the safety and adequacy of the physical environment. In addition, foster care imposes stringent supervision and oversight of the foster caregiver from the child welfare agency. For foster caregivers who are related to the child, most states apply somewhat less stringent requirements for licensing or approval. Boots and Geen (1999) report that 41 of 50 states responding to their survey allowed flexibility in requirements for kinship foster parents, on criteria such as physical space or training. These flexible requirements for kinship foster parents may be accompanied by reduced financial support, as discussed below.

Table 2-4.
Child Welfare Involvement and Financial Support for Kinship Care
Kinship Care Category Estimated Number of Children(a) Child Welfare Involvement Financial Support Options for Caregivers
Private Kinship Care 1.3 million None; parent and relative agree on arrangement. Child-only TANF

No support

Voluntary Kinship Care 300,000 May be known to agency and receive services, but parent voluntarily places child with relative. Kinship care often negotiated to avert child welfare placement. Child-only TANF

Subsidized guardianship

Other state-funded support

No support

Kinship Foster Care 200,000 Child is in custody of public child welfare agency. Child-only TANF

Foster care stipend

(a): Estimates from Ehrle, Geen, and Clark, 2001.

Eligibility for relative caregivers in child-only TANF cases is typically defined by a specified degree of relationship. Under PRWORA there is not federal law to define "relative caregivers," but rather individual state definitions. "Relative caregiver" typically includes "grandparents, siblings, stepparents, stepsiblings, uncles, aunts, first cousins, nephews and nieces," and persons of preceding generations, and spouses of any of these relatives (Mullen, 1995, page 7). In 28 states, the TANF definition of kin is different from the definition used by the child welfare agency (Janz et al., 2002). Within a single state, varying definitions may be used to define relatives with whom a child can be placed, relatives eligible for foster care funding, and relatives for purposes of TANF payment. For many, these definitions "are so confusing that caregivers cannot be expected to understand them" (Harvard Law Review, 1999, page 1057). In 21 states, the child welfare definition is broader than the TANF definition, thus placing relatives referred to the TANF office for a child-only payment at risk of receiving no assistance (Janz et al., 2002).

As with parents in parent-present child-only cases, TANF relative caregivers are neither required to participate in the work activities nor are they subject to time limits placed on a standard TANF case. Therefore, assistance for the child in a child-only case is potentially available until the child "ages out" of the program at age 18.

TANF relative caregivers are typically required to cooperate with child support enforcement activities and to meet periodically with eligibility workers for redeterminations of benefits. Generally, redeterminations take place every 6 to 12 months (depending on the state), or every 3 months in some states, if the case is receiving food stamps (Farrell et al., 2000). During the redetermination, caregivers must supply basic information about the household, although they are not required to provide information regarding income and resources.

Financial support. Financial support for relative caregivers is determined by circumstances of the placement, financial resources of the child's family, and caregiver licensing status. For children who qualify for federal foster care assistance under the standards established by Title IV-E of the Social Security Act (i.e., removal from a home that would have qualified for income assistance under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program, and custody by a state child welfare agency), relative caregivers who are licensed foster parents are legally entitled to receive IV-E foster care payments, under the terms of Miller v. Youkim (Harvard Law Review, 1999). IV-E foster care payments are supported by a combination of both state and federal funds.

For kinship foster parents who do not fully meet the state's foster care licensing requirements, states are not required to provide foster care payments (Harvard Law Review, 1999). States may offer these caregivers either child-only TANF payments or state foster care payments, which may be equivalent to or lower than federal foster care. Because the state bears the full cost of state foster care, states have a financial incentive to use child-only TANF support, which is much less costly. Of the 41 states reporting alternative licensing arrangements for kinship foster parents, 19 offer a reduced level of support (Boots and Geen, 1999).

States also have the option of offering state-funded foster care payments for relative caregivers for placements of children who are not IV-E eligible. For example, in California, no matter what licensing standard a family meets, if the children in the relative home are not from a welfare-eligible family, the relative family cannot get a foster care payment, regardless of the relative family's own income. Missouri has even more complicated criteria for foster care payment eligibility. It specifies that all grandparent caregivers can receive a foster care payment, but any other type of relative can receive foster care payments only if they are caring for children who come from a welfare-eligible family (Farrell et al., 2000).

Kinship foster care providers thus have several possible levels of support when caring for children in state custody: federal foster care payment, state foster care payment, or child-only TANF. By contrast, voluntary kinship caregivers, who care for children who are not in state custody, typically rely on child-only TANF. Some may choose to forego financial assistance rather than apply for child-only TANF.

Some general study findings offer insight into the well-being of this population:
  • Relative care may be the best alternative
    Relative care offers permanency
  • Children have often experienced past traumatic events such as abuse, neglect, and substance abuse
  • Physical and emotional health of children in relative care is poor
  • School performance of children in relative care is poor
  • Relative caregivers may be suffering from financial hardship

In some states, assisted guardianship arrangements represent an alternative payment source for both formal and informal kinship care providers. As of April 2000, eight states had received federal approval to use Title IV-E foster care payments to support relative caregivers who are willing to assume legal guardianship of children in their care. Other states, including West Virginia, are using state funds to support guardianships. These arrangements provide financial support that is generally close to the level of foster care payments, with fewer licensing requirements and less intrusive supervision than kinship foster care.

Although provisions vary by state, guardianships are typically available for relatives who have already been caring for the child for a specified period of time (6 months to 2 years). Eligibility for children is defined in terms of the child's age (usually over age 12), strong attachment to the relative caregiver, and lack of options for reunification with parents or adoption. Most assisted guardianship initiatives provide financial support at the level of adoption assistance payments, which are capped at the foster care support rate. States may also provide services similar to those that would be available to families adopting foster children, including medical assistance. The goals of assisted guardianship programs include stable placements, reduced intrusion by the child welfare system into the relative caregiver's life, and reduced case management costs (DHHS, 2000). Although families typically transition to assisted guardianship from kinship foster care, some states offer this option to voluntary caregivers as well.

As with cash assistance, the availability of other supports for children in kinship care and kinship care providers vary according to the state and the type of kinship arrangement. Table 2-5 summarizes income requirements and services available to families in the different types of relative care.

Table 2-5.
Services Available to Families in Kinship Care
  Private Kinship Care Voluntary Kinship Care Kinship Foster Care
Child Welfare Services Not applicable Some  depending on the state and the agency Yes  but research shows they receive fewer than traditional nonkin foster parents
Foster Care Payments Not applicable No Yes  if relative becomes a licensed foster parent
TANF Child-Only Grants Yes(a) Yes Yes  if not receiving a foster care payment
TANF Income Assistance Grants Yes  for themselves and their own biological children if income eligible Yes  for themselves and their own biological children if income eligible Yes  for themselves and their own biological children if income eligible
Food Stamps Yes  must be income eligible, but relative children would be counted when determining the grant amount Yes  must be income eligible, but relative children would be counted when determining the grant amount Yes  must be income eligible, but relative children would be counted when determining the grant amount
Medicaid Yes  if family is income eligible or a child-only grant is being made Yes  if family is income eligible or a child-only grant is being made Yes  all foster children are categorically eligible
SSI Yes  if relative child meets disability guidelines Yes  if relative child meets disability guidelines Yes  if relative child meets disability guidelines and a foster care payment is not being made for that child
(a): Wisconsin's TANF program converted child-only payments to kinship care payments; families were only eligible if the child was determined to be at risk of harm if living with his or her biological parents. Child welfare agencies assess all families applying for payment.
Sources: Ehrle, Geen, and Clark, 2001.

Because the children in kinship foster care receive services and are monitored through the child welfare system, more research has been conducted assessing their well-being (Janz et al., 2002; Scannapieco and Hegar, 1999). By contrast, little research has been conducted assessing the well-being of children in TANF child-only cases, generally, and relative caregiver child-only cases, specifically. The following section reviews research on the well-being of children in relative care.

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