Across the five sites visited, three themes were voiced consistently, and from a variety of perspectives:
- Many, if not most, children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers enter kinship care as a result of serious deficits in parental care. Kinship care situations most of which do not involve the child welfare system were described as the result of parental substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration, or abandonment.
- While informal kinship care arrangements generally improve safety, stability, and well-being for children, many kinship care families experience high levels of material and service needs. TANF programs, with their focus on economic self-sufficiency, lack the resources to respond to these needs. Assistance beyond the child-only TANF grant is typically available only to relative caregivers persistent enough to seek out help, and limited to referrals to community resources.
- Relative caregivers are fiercely committed to the children they care for. However, they have deep concerns on several fronts. They worry that they cannot protect children from the reappearance of the same parents who failed them before. They recognize that their own child-rearing abilities may be limited by the effects of aging, or inadequate to meet children's behavioral, emotional, and physical needs. The demands of child-raising require substantial material sacrifices of relative caregivers, and may threaten what had previously been marginal financial stability.
The states visited as part of this study have implemented a variety of strategies to address the needs of children in TANF child-only cases and their relative caregivers. These strategies include tailoring intake and recertification procedures to meet the needs of relative caregivers, providing social support and resource networks for elderly caregivers, and offering supplemental funds to augment child-only TANF grants. One state offers enhanced financial support for low-income relative caregivers, as do several other states not participating in the case studies.
A major distinction among the five states is their response to formal kinship care providers who care for children in child welfare custody. Among the two states for whom estimates were available, the proportion of kinship caregivers who were licensed as foster parents ranged from 10 to 50 percent. Caregivers who do not meet licensure requirements receive substantially less financial support. These distinctions are offset in some states by the availability of supported guardianship programs for relatives who assume long-term custody of children formerly in state custody.
Informants in each of the case study sites recognized the similarities between formal and informal kinship care populations, and the fact that many children travel between child welfare involvement and informal kinship care over time. To varying degrees within and across the five states, collaborative efforts attempt to improve communication, share resources, and otherwise bridge the gap between child welfare and TANF agencies. Only in some Wisconsin counties have structural changes been implemented to bring children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers closer to the type of child-focused services and supervision provided for children in child welfare custody.
Many TANF agency representatives pointed out that children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers were likely to be better off in their current situation than they had been with their parents. However, to the extent that these children would have received services from a child welfare agency had their circumstances been known, or had a relative not intervened, they are substantially underserved. Children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers do not have access to the comprehensive assessments, support services, financial support, and permanency planning provided to those in state custody.
Because informal kinship care providers receive far less caregiver assessment and ongoing supervision, the risk remains that children are placed in the care of yet another inadequate or even dangerous caregiver. The child welfare system, working under critical resource constraints, has no mandate to serve these children; the TANF agency has neither the resources nor the expertise to meet their needs.