Informal and Formal Kinship Care. 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.

View full report


"6016.pdf" (pdf, 3.49Mb)

Note: Documents in PDF format require the Adobe Acrobat Reader®. If you experience problems with PDF documents, please download the latest version of the Reader®