Traditionally, kinship care has been separated into two categories. Informal kinship care refers to caregiving arrangements that occur without the involvement of a child welfare agency, whereas formal kinship care refers to arrangements in which kin act as foster parents for children in State custody.
Unfortunately, “informal” and “formal” do not fully describe the range of differences within these groups. For example, informal kinship care includes at least two groups: homes in which a relative is caring for a child and no birth parent is present in the household, and three-generation households in which a parent is in the home but does not take primary child-rearing responsibilities. Moreover, referring to kinship caregiving outside the purview of the child welfare system as informal, may incorrectly imply that such arrangements are short-term or tenuous. Some informal kinship caregivers have legal custody of related children through adoption or guardianship, and others have legal decision-making authority through a power of attorney. Even informal kinship caregivers who do not have legal authority may be recognized and supported by State welfare and Medicaid agencies. In short, some informal kinship care arrangements are more formal than others.
Likewise, formal kinship care arrangements vary in the extent to which they are publicly supported and monitored. (Chapter 2 defines four different types of arrangements under which kin can care for children in State custody.)
Neither informal nor formal kinship care describes instances in which child welfare agencies help arrange the placement of a child with a relative b ut do not seek court action to obtain custody of the child. For example, during or after a child protective services investigation, a caseworker may advise a parent to place a child with a relative; both the parent and the relative know that if the parent refuses, the agency may use the court to obtain custody of the child and place the child in foster care. Many child welfare experts have argued that these so-called voluntary kinship care placements are common (Takas, 1993). Data from a recent national household survey, discussed below, appear to support this assertion.
Given the limitations of these terms, this report refers to all kinship care arrangements that occur without any child welfare agency’s involvement as private kinship care. It defines all kinship care arrangements that occur with child welfare contact—whether voluntary or formal court-ordered placements—as public kinship care. 3 Traditional foster care arrangements are called non-kin foster care.
Recognizing the contribution that extended family members can make, many States are creating programs to involve kin before a family is in crisis and a child must be removed from the home.4 Model programs like New Zealand’s Family Group Conference and Oregon's Family Unity seek to involve the extended family in decisions about the best interests of children under protective supervision. In addition to using kin as an initial placement resource for children, States may also seek out kin as a permanent option when it becomes apparent that children will not be able to return to their parents' home. Depending upon State policies, kin may be encouraged to adopt, become legal guardians, or provide long-term foster care.