Informal and Formal Kinship Care. Children in kin care and children in foster care: Comparisons for 1992-94


Some children in kin care are also in foster care; that is, they are being cared for by relatives other than their parents, but they are under the authority of the foster care system in their state. Unfortunately, we cannot identify these children. Until 1988, children in foster care were not identified in the CPS. However, in identifying how children are related to others in the household, respondents must choose between identifying them as foster children or as relatives; there is no way to identify them as both. Our intuition--albeit, with no empirical basis--is that, if forced to choose between the two ways of identifying the children, adults who have had relatives placed with them as foster children will identify these children as relatives, rather than foster children. Our population of kin-care children probably, therefore, includes some children who are actually part of the foster care system.

In this section, we compare the characteristics of children identified in the CPS as foster children with children we could identify as kin-care children for the 1992-94 period. As noted, these are not clean comparisons because foster children being cared for by relatives can fall in either group. Foster and kin-care children have in common the unfortunate circumstance that their parents either cannot or will not care for them adequately. If our assumption about how related foster parents identify these children is correct, then the comparisons noted in this section will show how children placed with non-relatives compare with children who are being cared for by relatives, whether placed with these relatives by the foster care system or through other arrangements. Many of the differences in the living arrangements of foster and kin-care children probably arise from the requirement that foster parents meet certain criteria in order to have children placed with them. Informal kin-caregivers do not have to meet these requirements. Furthermore, in some states, relatives who become foster parents face fewer, or less stringent, approval or licensing requirements.

The most striking difference between foster care and kin-care children is one of magnitude: in 1992-93, there were an average of 1.4 million children in kinship care each year, compared with only approximately 200,000 children in foster care reported in the CPS. In 1993, there were actually 440,000 children in foster care nationally.(4)

Children in foster care being cared for by relatives is responsible for some, but not all, of this undercount of foster care children in the CPS. Other reasons for the undercount are not known at this time.

Characteristics of children

Race/ethnicity. Like kin-care children, a much larger proportion of foster children than parent-care children are members of a minority group (see Table 1.6). Equal proportions of foster and kin-care children are African American (42.8 percent versus 44.3 percent), but a much smaller share of foster children are non-African American Hispanics (14.6 percent versus 7.9 percent).(5)

Although an equal percentage of foster and kin-care children are African American, it is instructive to look at the number of African American children in each status: during the 1992-94 period, each year there was an average of 735,274 African American children in kin care, more than seven-and-a-half times the number in foster care, 95,030.(6)

Age. On average, foster children are younger than kin-care children. A much larger proportion of foster care children are aged 4 or younger (34.2 percent versus 21.7 percent), and a much smaller proportion are aged 10 or older (41.4 percent versus 53.2 percent). However, although children 4 and younger make up a higher proportion of children in foster care than in kin care, there are about five times more children aged 0 to 4 in kin care than in foster care, 356,510 versus 73,342.(7)

Sex. In 1992-94, for both foster and kin-care children a slight majority (51.7 percent and 50.6 percent) were females. In contrast, for parent-care children, a slight majority (51.3 percent) are male.

Geographic distribution. Like children in kin care or parent care, foster children are more likely to reside in the South than any other region. Compared with kin-care children, they are more likely to live in the Northeast (20.2 percent versus 16.2 percent) or Midwest (25.2 percent versus 18.5 percent), and are less likely to live in the South (39.3 percent versus 46.8 percent) and West (15.4 percent versus 18.5 percent). Children in foster care are somewhat more likely than children in kin care to live in nonmetropolitan areas (29.4 percent versus 25.5 percent).

Caretaker characteristics

For all the characteristics of caregivers examined--marital status, age, educational attainment, and labor force status--foster parents fall somewhere between kin-caregivers and other parents (see Table 1.7).

Foster children are substantially more likely than kin-care children to be cared for by a married couple (66.6 percent versus 50.3 percent), although still less likely than parent-care children (72.4 percent). A sizable portion of both foster and kin-care children are cared for by widows (14.6 percent and 15.2 percent), only 1.0 percent of parent-care children have widowed mothers.

Foster mothers are older than other mothers, but younger than female kin-caregivers. The largest age group for mothers is 30-39, for foster mothers is 40-49, and for female kin-caregivers is 50-59. The same pattern is observed for foster fathers, other fathers, and male kin-caregivers.

Foster parents are better educated than kin-caregivers, but less educated than other parents. For example, most kin-caregivers (42.6 percent) are high school dropouts, but this group makes up a very small proportion of foster parents (15.2 percent) or other parents (14.2 percent). On the other hand, foster care parents are less likely to be college graduates than other parents (18.3 percent versus 26.8 percent), but are substantially more likely than kin-caregivers (8.1 percent).

Foster parents are more likely to be employed than kin-caregivers (71.6 percent versus 57.5 percent), but less likely than other parents (83.0 percent). Conversely, they are more likely to be out of the labor force than other parents (26.6 percent versus 12.4 percent), but less likely than kin-caregivers (39.1 percent).

Poverty status and use of services

Of the government programs we examined, foster families are less likely than kin-care families to receive benefits from all programs except unemployment compensation (see Table 1.8). The largest differences in receipt of benefits are children's use of free school lunches (31.1 percent versus 49.8 percent), receipt of food stamps (15.0 percent versus 31.2 percent), receipt of public assistance or welfare (11.0 percent versus 27.0 percent), and receipt of social security (23.2 percent versus 34.6 percent). The pattern of receipt of benefits for foster families is similar to the pattern for regular families whose children live with them, although foster families are more likely to receive social security payments (23.3 percent for foster families versus 6.4 percent for other families).

Foster families are substantially less likely to be below the poverty line than kin-care families (23.1 percent versus 38.8 percent). Their poverty status is similar to families whose children are at home (21.4 percent). On the other hand, foster families are similar to kin-care families in that very high proportions have no earned income (22.3 percent compared with 26.3 percent, contrasted with 9.2 percent for intact families). As Table 1.9 illustrates, kin-care and foster families with no earnings are equally likely to be below the poverty line--76.4 percent and 76.3 percent, respectively. The difference in poverty rates for the two groups is entirely due to differentials among families with earnings. Among kin-care families, 25.4 percent of those with earnings are in poverty, compared to only 7.8 percent for foster families. The explanation may be that foster payments--which are not tracked in the CPS--are enough to push most foster families with earnings over the poverty threshold.


1. 0 The characteristics of children in kin care are affected by two factors: the percentage of children in kin care for various groups, and the characteristics of all children. Thus, there will be in increase in the percentage of children in kin care who are black if the percentage of children in kin care increases, if the percentage of all children who are black increases, or both.

2. 0 Until 1988, the CPS did not identify whether children were living with their grandparents unless the children were also living with one or both parents. Children were identified only as "other relative" of the head of family.

3. 0 Coverage by Medicaid could not be evaluated because of inaccuracies in the CPS Medicaid coverage data.

4. 0 Child Welfare League of America (1995). Child Abuse and Neglect: A Look at the States. Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of America, Table 2.1.

5. 0 Including black Hispanics in the Hispanic group rather than the black group does not change this finding.

6. 0 Note that, as discussed above, 1994 data are not completely comparable to earlier years for point estimates. When 1994 is excluded and 1992 and 1993 data are used, the yearly average number of all black children in kin care is 650,275 and in foster care 93,325.

7. 0 When 1994 is excluded and 1992 and 1993 data are used, the yearly average number of all children 0-4 years old in kin care is 258,878 and in foster care is 71,719.

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