Informal and Formal Kinship Care. Age and Statewide Levels of Care Arrangements


All comparisons of formal versus informal kinship care must be based on information that is available both through the census data and the Multistate Foster Care Archive, because the informal kinship population can be observed empirically only by joining these two data sources. Although a number of characteristics describe the children in kinship foster care, the only personal characteristic that is available to us from the census data to describe the children in kinship living arrangements is their age, defined within two broad categories. Tables 3.2a and 3.2b present the same four-state population of children described in the previous table, now divided into two subgroups -- children 0-5 years of age and children 6-17 years of age.

The overall structure of child living arrangements is similar across states and between age groups. In each of the four states, the preponderance of children live with one or two parents -- the combined four-state percentage of children living with one or more parents is 96.3 percent for ages 0-5 and 94.5 percent for ages 6-17. Older children are slightly more likely to live in a mother-only situation than are younger children, while younger children are slightly more likely to live with two parents or in a father-only arrangement than are the older children.

More marked differences between age categories begin to appear when we look at the distribution of children living in kinship and unrelated settings. Overall, formal foster care placements are used less frequently than informal (or other) care arrangements in both relative and non-relative settings. There is higher prevalence of formal arrangements for children in the younger age group. For the four states combined, 0.49 percent of 0-5 year olds were in formal kinship foster care as opposed to 0.31 percent of 6-17 year olds. Similarly, there is higher prevalence of informal arrangements for children in the older age group. For the four states combined, 2.5 percent of the 6-17 year olds were in informal kinship arrangements as opposed to only 1.2 percent of 0-5 year olds. Figure 3.2 shows prevalence rates (per 1,000 children) by age group for formal and informal kinship care. In each of the four states, informal kinship arrangements for children 6-17 are approximately twice as prevalent for children ages 0-5. In contrast, the prevalence of formal kinship care arrangements is greater for the 0-5 age group in all states except Missouri (where both levels are very low). Clearly, this represents a patterned response to children's care needs in which the youngest children are more likely to be placed in kinship arrangements under the auspices of the formal child welfare system.

Figure 3.2 demonstrates another attribute of kinship care in these four states. Although the fundamental relationship between the children is age, and kinship care type is persistent, this chart also portrays clearly what does and doesn't vary across states. The higher prevalence of informal kinship care in both age categories is markedly constant for these four states. For 0-5 year-olds, it varies only between 10 per thousand in New York to 13 per thousand in California; and for 6-17 year olds between 20 per thousand in Illinois to 29 per thousand in California. In contrast, while the basic age relationships within the formal kinship foster care category are maintained across each state (except Missouri), the prevalence levels for formal kinship care vary widely. The formal kinship care prevalence in New York was over ten times as great as in Missouri, twice as great as in Illinois, and over one-third as large as in California.

The absolute levels and age composition of children in kinship care arrangements observed here across these four states suggests, in the absence of other contextual information, that the many social forces, pressures, and trends that resulted in children living in these alternative care arrangements have acted similarly in these four parts of the United States. However, we also see that these cross-state similarities do not fully hold for the subset of children in formal kinship foster care. Although the basic age relationship observed for formal kinship care tends to be constant across states -- the relative size of the formal kinship population varies between states more than the informal kinship population does. A simple explanation would be that while overall kinship levels result from general social processes and trends that affect children similarly in each state, the specific response of establishing and supporting formal kinship foster care arrangements is highly dependent on local child welfare policy and practice considerations, which can vary across states. This topic will be addressed again as new information is explored.

We have observed that older children are substantially more likely than younger children to live in informal kinship arrangements, that younger children are somewhat more likely than older children to be in formal kinship arrangements, and that each age group is more likely to become engaged in informal rather than formal kinship care. It should be noted that these two population groups do not equally divide the total child population -- indeed, the 0-5 year group contains only just over one-third (36 percent) of the child population. Although the comparative prevalence rates discussed above are analytically most instructive, they do not directly address the actual population impact of these processes. Figure 3.3 presents the actual distributions of kinship care by age and type for all children living in any kinship situation. Because the 6-17 year age group is most likely to live in an informal kinship setting, and is almost twice the size of the 0-5 group, we can see that the net results are numerically dominated by older children in informal arrangements.

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