Performance Improvement 1998. Informal and Formal Kinship Care



This study used existing national data sources to describe the characteristics of children in kinship living arrangements and to define recent trends in the pattern of kinship caregiving. Comparisons were made between formal kinship arrangements, in which foster care were provided under State auspices, and informal kinship arrangements, in which care was provided by relatives in the absence of a parent--but without State intervention. Over 2 million, or 3 percent, of all children in the United State are in kinship care (defined for study purposes as a child living in a relative's household without a parent present). Kinship caregiving and the children living in single-mother families both appear to be adaptations to family disruption and the decline of the traditional two-parent family. The majority of children in kinship care are white. However, African-American children are four to five times more likely to live in kinship care settings than white non-Hispanic children. Kinship care providers tend to be older than parental caregivers (about two-thirds of care providers are grandparents), and more likely to be poorly educated, out of the labor force, below or near the poverty level, and recipients of public assistance programs. Persons caring for their related children tend to be an economically and socially marginal class. Formal kinship care tends to be a creation of local policy, agency practice, and public administration. Children in formal kinship care tend to be under 5 years of age, African American, and highly urban. They are likely to draw more public attention than the generally white, older, and non-metropolitan children in informal kinship care. Several data issues are addressed in the report, as is the potential influence of changes in the welfare system on the future role of kinship care.


This study used existing national data sources to describe the characteristics of children in kinship living arrangements in the United States, to identify recent trends in the pattern of kinship caregiving, and to compare formal and informal kinship care arrangements.


The foster care population has grown by over 60 percent during the past decade. This increase has been attributed to increased reporting of abuse and neglect, the spread of crack-cocaine addiction, increased levels of poverty, reduced caseworker staffing, increased duration of stay, and court-ordered reform. Kinship foster care has also grown during this period, rising to 54 percent of all foster care in Illinois, 45 percent in California, and 36 percent in New York in 1993. In 1994, 3.1 percent of all children were estimated to be in kinship care. Children in informal kinship settings (provided by relatives in the absence of a parent, but not as foster care under auspices of the State) are of particular importance for the child welfare system as an alternative model of caregiving and as a potential "feeder" population for more formal arrangements provided by the State. Recent welfare changes may further accelerate the growth in kinship care arrangements. More information is required, however, about trends in the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of national and State patterns of formal and informal kinship care.


Data on national patterns and trends in kinship care are drawn from 12 years of the Current Population Survey (CPS). State data on living arrangement patterns come from the 1990 Census of Population. Administrative foster care records in California, Illinois, New York, and Missouri provide a breakdown of children living with relatives into separate categories of formal and informal kinship care. These data allow for aggregate State analysis and for analysis of "primary urban places" (such as Chicago and Los Angeles County) in comparison to the rest of the State. In the State of Illinois, individual-level records were examined for all recent (1990-1995) child AFDC grant recipients and all foster children in the State. These data were accessed from the Illinois Child Multi-Service Data Base and allowed analysis of transition in foster care arrangements. Study variables included race/ethnicity, age, gender, poverty status, employment status, marital status, geographic area, family structure, characteristics of caregiver, and type of kinship care.


National trend analysis indicates that children in kinship care are disproportionately made up of minority children and cared for by relatives who are much older, less educated, poorer, and generally with fewer advantages than parents who live with their own children. Living arrangement patterns by State indicate that kinship care levels across States tend to vary strongly and inversely with the proportion of children living within a traditional two-parent family structure--kinship care appears to be a direct product of higher levels of social disruption and family disorganization. Analysis of administrative foster care records shows that African-American children are about eight times as likely as all others to be in formal kinship placements. This racial effect holds across regions and age groups. Informal kinship care is much more common than formal kinship care, which tends to be concentrated in urban places. In the four States studied, 15.5 percent of all children in kinship living arrangements were in kinship foster care (the range among States was 2.7 to 22.5 percent). The remainder were in informal arrangements.

Analysis of AFDC grant recipients and all foster children in the State of Illinois indicates that formal kinship group is younger, disproportionately African American, and living in Chicago. Most children remain in their current status over time. AFDC children living with relatives are about twice as likely to move into formal kinship care as are AFDC children living with their parents, although the likelihood of such a change is less than 2 percent per year. Children who move between different AFDC and kinship settings tend to be younger.

Several data issues were discussed, including the importance of individual-level data in order to control for race/ethnicity and poverty status; the difficulty of clearly defining family relationships, such as the presence or absence of a child's parent, in survey data; and the need for large population surveys in order to obtain a sufficient number of kinship care cases. Recommendations included the maintenance of baseline information on kinship care, more detailed information on the living arrangements of children, conducting similar data analysis for additional States, and creating linked and integrated information resources describing the full range of children's contacts with social services and other public systems.

Use of Results

The descriptive analysis of kinship care arrangements can inform national and State policy on welfare reform and family support. These analyses informed debate on sections of the Adoption and Safe Families Act (Public Law 105-89), which includes provisions on kinship care. They also will be used to prepare a report to the Congress on kinship care and in the work of a Federal Advisory Committee on Kinship Care ordered by that law. This study and related work also will be used to better understand caseload shifts in safety-net programs following welfare reform and their effects on children and families. Variations in the size and prevalence of the kinship care population are related to stresses in the social conditions of families. The number of children in kinship care might serve as a barometer of the impact of social and economic problems on family structure. Welfare changes are likely to affect the transition of children between various living arrangements, both formal and informal. Information is needed to track the family status of children at risk and the types, timing, and reason for changes in kinship care arrangements.

AGENCY SPONSOR: Office for the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Office of Human Services Policy


PHONE NUMBER: (202) 690-5938

PIC ID: 6016

PERFORMER ORGANIZATION: University of Chicago, Chicago, IL; and Urban Institute, Washington, DC