Informal and Formal Kinship Care. Substantive recommendations for the continued study of kinship care


The impetus for this project emerged largely from concerns about recent growth in the size of formal kinship (foster) care population in many states. Several of these states have recently submitted IV-E waiver applications to support programmatic reforms being implemented to respond to their growing kinship caseloads. One reason that HHS requested this report was the premise that in order to understand the formal kinship care population, we needed to gain more insight into the nature of all kinship caregiving, with or without formal public supports. Of particular concern was finding out how similar these two groups are, and if the informal kinship group should be seen as a latent group with high potential of moving into the formal foster care system.

Interest in describing the kinship care population has also been rooted in a more general framework, which recognizes that variations in the size and prevalence of the kinship care population are related to stresses in the social conditions of families. Thus, the levels of children in kinship care might well serve as an barometer of the impact of generalized social problems on families, as well as a means for identifying a specific population od children and caregivers that have been directly affected by tensions in their daily lives. For these issues, the kinship care population is enumerated and described in a manner that treats its prevalence as an outcome, presuming that it is symptomatic of other processes affecting the social order.

To really understand the nature of kinship caregiving, we need not just to describe the children in kinship arrangements, but to represent the processes by which children come to live in households with their relatives and without their parents. Children enter kinship care arrangements at different stages of their lives, for different reasons, and with different expectations of permanency. In some cases the arrangement is initiated and pushed by agencies of the state, in others state support or custody is sought by the family, and sometimes the entire arrangement is created by family agreement.

If kinship care is typically to be understood as an adaptive and alternative to own-parent care, it should be useful to determine what problems it is solving and under what conditions alternative care arrangements are sought. Most of us will react to the each following situations very differently, finding that each scenario elicits a different emotive reaction and a different set of concerns.

  • A woman assumes total care and custody for her younger sister's baby, because the mother is seriously addicted to drugs.
  • A school-aged child moves in with grandparents after his mother has died.
  • A teenager, abused by her father, moves in with her cousins.
  • Another teenager lives with an older sibling while finishing high school after his father's job is transferred to another city.
  • Grandmother's health is failing, but she tries to continue raising her grandchildren anyway because the state cannot approve their mother as prepared to manage a reunification.
  • A father abandons his two children with his parents.
  • Grandmother moves in to care for three kids while their mother serves a prison sentence.
  • Grandparents continue caring for a child that they have effectively raised since her mother gave birth at the age of fourteen.
  • Mom sends her children to stay with her brother and his wife while she looks for housing and employment.
  • A boy who has been getting in trouble is sent to his grandparent's because his mother can't provide the needed level of supervision during the work week.
  • Caseworkers ask a child's grandmother to take care of him until they find out why he came the hospital with a broken arm and bruises.

These examples start to illustrate the myriad of possible scenarios that might lead to kinship caregiving. It is easy to note as we run through this list that our response to a kinship care arrangement is framed by the social and behavioral context of the situation, and not on the fact that it involves kinship placement, per se. Our understanding is conditioned by knowledge of where the mother and father are, why one or both of them are not the caregiver, why the relative assumes care of the child, what responsibility the different parties feel is being assumed, the extent to which the relative is able and willing to provide good care, and a sense of what the alternatives to the given care arrangement might be.

One substantive point to be drawn from this discussion is that, in attempting to classify and evaluate cases of children in kinship care arrangements, we should be seeking information about the processes that lead to changes in living arrangement status -- about the reasons children move into kinship care arrangements and the nature of the transitions that initiate (and terminate) kinship situations. The existence of children living in alternative care arrangements with relatives is an opportunity to identify cases where the traditional own-parent family does not function. Ideally, we can know something about the status of the parent, the precipitating reason for kinship care, or the permanence of the arrangement. Any information that might help us differentiate types of kinship care cases will increase our ability to interpret the meaning of new patterns or shifts in trends.

Another substantive point is that study of these alternative care arrangements must continue to be framed in the context of all care arrangements provided for children. The scenarios above include many distinct reasons for the movement of children to care of relatives, but almost all of them contain some evidence of fragility in their original own-parent household. Often this fragility derives directly from parental problems, that might become manifest in forms such as substance abuse, criminal activity, or abusive behavior. But it also seems that certain families are at high risk of disruption. Poverty often is a significant contributing factor. Single-parent families are especially vulnerable, if only because the one person filling the roles of parent and provider should be expected to have far more trouble buffering against crises and mediating problems than a household with two or more responsible adults. The argument being made is that because kinship care is a product of the family environment, all of the prior processes that are involved in family formation and dissolution are informative in that the help set the stage for later events. Information about teenaged childbirth, marriage rates, and births within and outside of marriage; frequency of non-marital coresidence, partnership and parenting; marital breakdown rates; participation in extended family households; establishment of paternity and child support participation -- all of these bear directly on this discussion because they help to define the size and severity of the population of children "at risk" of living in tenuous or nonviable home care environments.

One reason that "process" investigation is so important is because a phenomenon like kinship care can result from so many possible causes. It is difficult to assign explanations or reasons when kinship care levels are observed to change. We expect that the fundamental reordering of the welfare system will have an observable impact on kinship care levels and on the child welfare system. Yet, as the welfare reforms are implemented, many other changes will occur simultaneously--some related to welfare reform and others quite independent of it. We will be far better able to untangle the meanings of these changes if we have better detail about the nature of individual transitions between these statuses. Some parts of this information can be produced by exploiting existing data sources such as welfare records, child welfare data, and other service contact information. A stronger source of information would be tracking information obtained directly from the children and caretakers involved. Data of this quality can only be acquired by survey techniques. Because some significant national data-gathering efforts on child well-being are now on the drawing board, it would be fruitful to ensure that the instruments will be able to detect information about the family status of children and the types, timing, and reason for changes in these arrangements.

(25)These "forces" might involve many types of conditions. For example, the utilization of kinship care has been explained by the influence of local court decisions, the availability of spaces in nonrelative foster homes, management directives, etc.

(26)The argument as posed is also extremely simplistic. Even if one of these could be shown to be more important in current child-rearing practices, the causal impetus could have emerged due to the other set of causes. For example, the greater normative acceptance of kinship caregiving could have developed as a response to structural need.

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