Informal and Formal Kinship Care. Formal and Informal Kinship Care Arrangements


Up to this point, the kinship care relationship has been described as a single category. However, one of the main reasons kinship care has drawn interest from policymakers and program administrators is the recent growth of one particular subset of kinship-caregiving relations -- kinship foster care, or formal kinship care. The emergence of formal kinship care as an important policy topic gives rise to many questions. Are kinship arrangements that are formally sanctioned and supported by state child welfare systems fundamentally different from informal kinship arrangements? Do different types of children (or caregivers) become located in formal versus informal kinship settings? Do children move between these two kinship care types, or do children tend to track into one or the other?

Empirical investigation of the use of formal and informal kinship arrangements has been inconclusive, largely due to serious constraints in the data available for analysis. As discussed earlier, there are multiple national data sources that provide information about the prevalence, distribution, and characteristics of children living in kinship care situations. The Current Population Survey, for example, provides detailed estimates of the population of children living with relatives as well as estimates for a population of children defined as "foster children." But, because there is no way for a child to be simultaneously identified as a relative and as a foster child, children in kinship foster must necessarily be lumped into one of these broader categories, either as a relative or a foster child. Our presumption is that most kinship foster cases are defined in the CPS by their "kinship" status instead of by their "foster care" status, so we would expect that the foster care category is comprised mostly of those children living in non-relative foster family placements. This leaves us with no representative national data source that discriminates kinship care cases between "formal" and "informal", and with no national data sources that will allow us to discriminate between "relative" and "non-relative" foster care.

The key population that must be enumerated, then, in order for these comparisons to be made is the "kinship foster care" group (also called "formal" kinship). Once this group is identified, it can readily be compared to the overall kinship care population to provide (by simple subtraction) a means of separating the total kinship care population into informal and formal subgroups. Similarly, the kinship foster care group can easily be contrasted to the total population of children in foster care to differentiate the kinship and non-relative foster care subgroups.

Although this information is not available from any known national data source, it can be obtained for four of the states that report to the Multistate Foster Care Data Archive Project, managed by the Chapin Hall Center for Children. Based on comprehensive individual-level tracking records of children in foster care, the Archive currently can identify kinship foster care cases in California, Illinois, Missouri, and New York. Some personal and case characteristics are available to describe each child in these formal kinship placements, and the use of kinship care placements can be evaluated in context of its role in a child's complete foster care history. It is worth noting that this information is not available for every state that participates in the Archive. Michigan, for example, uses kinship care fairly extensively, but these cases cannot be recognized through their data system in the cases where the placement is arranged by an independent provider agency. Formal kinship care in Texas, in the sense of paid foster care placements, is fairly rare and not specifically flagged in the tracking system. What is unusual about kinship care practices in the Texas child welfare system is a widespread reliance on "semi-formal" kinship care arrangements. As in other states, a child is frequently placed in the care of a relative while the child legally remains in state conservatorship (custody). Unlike most other states, the relative caretaker typically receives no foster care payments or support. Because this arrangement so clouds the line between formal and informal care, and because the few paid kinship placements known to exist cannot be identified in the data records, Texas was not included in the following analysis.

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