Custody arrangements for children in informal kinship care vary. Children in formal kinship care are, by definition, in the custody of a public child welfare agency. For informal kinship care, none of the states visited require relative caregivers to have legal custody of children for whom they are caring. Relatives can establish voluntary custody fairly readily if the child's parent is available to provide written consent to the caregiving arrangement. This process establishes their authority to make routine decisions on the child's behalf. Wisconsin requires documentation of parental consent for TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers, and Louisiana's Kinship Care Support Program requires that relative caregivers establish custody within one year.
|"In essence, I have no rights. If my daughter shows up, high on whatever, she can just walk off with my granddaughter."
Relative Caregiver, Washington
Many relative caregivers participating in focus groups would like to go further than this and establish permanent legal custody to ensure that children are not returned to a parent who does not adequately care for them. This is a far more demanding process, requiring the caregiver to document parental unfitness in court. The high cost of legal assistance for this process (reported to be between $800 and $3,000 per child by relative caregivers in Oklahoma) make this infeasible for most caregivers. A few participants in different states reported having completed this procedure, either at great cost to themselves, or (in one case) by finding a lawyer willing to work pro bono to protect the relative children from their parents.
Children in formal kinship care receive periodic permanency reviews to assess whether their living arrangement offers them long-term safety, stability, and preservation of family and community bonds (DHHS, 2000). Especially for younger children, adoption is seen as the preferred arrangement when reunification with birth parents is not possible. Relatives who adopt children who have been in foster care are often eligible for adoption subsidy payments until the child is at least 18 years old, as well as reimbursement for legal costs associated with the adoption. These benefits are not available to informal kinship care providers.
Although most relative caregivers intend to raise children until adulthood (Edelhoch, Liu, and Martin, 2002), many caregivers are reluctant to adopt these children for a variety of cultural and interpersonal reasons. Because of the preference given to placement with relative caregivers, states are not required to pursue termination of parental rights and adoption for children in kinship care (DHHS, 2000). As an intermediate strategy to offer children greater permanency without disrupting other family relationships, four of the five states visited offer subsidized guardianship arrangements for relatives willing to assume legal long-term responsibility for children. These arrangements remove relative caregivers from the supervision of child welfare agencies, generally with a higher level of financial support than is available from child-only TANF. In Louisiana and Maryland, the support level is more than child-only TANF but less than foster care; in Oklahoma and Wisconsin the support level is equivalent to foster care. All programs provide the full amount of support for multiple children rather than incremental increases provided by child-only TANF. Table 4-5 summarizes these programs. Wisconsin officials noted that there is a pilot guardianship program, similar to Maryland's, in Milwaukee. In all states except Louisiana, these arrangements are available only to children who have been in state custody. Maryland's program is funded through a IV-E waiver, while others are supported by state funds.
|Relative Guardianship Program||Louisiana||Maryland||Oklahoma||Wisconsin|
|Program Name||Kinship Care Subsidy Program (KCSP)||IV-E Waiver Guardianship||Supported Permanency||Long-Term Kinship Care (Chapter 48.977)|
|Population||Low-income relative caregivers||Children formerly in kinship foster care||Children over age 12 in formal kinship care, for whom reunification is not likely||Children who have been in court-ordered kinship care|
|Payment per Child:||(same as foster care)||(child-only TANF)|
|Custody||Must establish provisional or actual custody within 1 year of entry||Relative guardianship||Relative guardianship: TANF block grant pays legal fees||Relative guardianship|