On Their Own Terms: Supporting Kinship Care Outside of TANF and Foster Care. Characteristics of Kinship Families

09/01/2001

Site visits to alternative kinship care programs provided concrete and vivid examples of why kinship care families have a wide variety of needs. Interviews with program administrators, workers, and kinship caregivers revealed that kinship caregivers often lack recent parenting experience, face social if not physical isolation, experience the difficulty of balancing work with caregiving, and can face challenges or conflicts with the birth parents of the child for whom they are caring. Caregivers also observe that kinship care children often face severe emotional and behavioral problems as a result of abuse or neglect, separation from their parents, embarrassment over living with an older caretaker, and the uncertainty over the permanency of their current living arrangement. These problems present significant challenges for both the caregivers and the children.

  • Caregiver's relation to the child. National research shows that a large majority (69 percent) of children in kinship care are cared for by a grandparent, and over one-fifth (21 percent) are in the care of an aunt or uncle (Ehrle et al., 2001). Likewise, the majority of caregivers enrolled in the alternative programs visited are grandparents and most often, they are grandmothers caring for their daughter's children. However, the prevalence of other types of kin caregivers is notable. For example, of the 1,400 grandparent program cases in Denver's program, 100 are single grandfathers. In Pittsburgh, A Second Chance's primary caregivers are grandmothers in 37 percent of their cases, but aunts account for 33 percent of the kinship caregivers, and family friends account for 16 percent.
"I was 65, I wanted to go play. I'd been there done that."
  • Age of caregiver and children. Most studies have shown that kinship caregivers are older than non-kin caregivers, with many more over the age of 60 (U.S. DHHS, 2000a). However, since kin caregivers may be aunts or even siblings of a related child, many are also much younger. While Denver's program serves primarily caregivers who are between 55 and 63 years of age, administrators of the Kinship Support Network in San Francisco and Kentucky's support group program face challenges in designing services for kinship caregivers who may be as young as 20 or over age 90. Contrary to popular images of kinship care children as newborns, more than half of children in kinship care are between 11 and 18 years of age (Ehrle et al., 2001).
  • Marital status. More than half of kinship care children live with caregivers who are unmarried (Ehrle et al., 2001). Not surprisingly, we heard in many focus groups that many kinship caregivers rely on other family members for support in helping to raise related children.
"With me, it wasn't bad financially because I had the child on my insurance, but when I retired my income was cut in half."
  • Income of caregivers. Two in five (41 percent) kinship care children live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level (Ehrle et al., 2001). At the same time, many kinship caregivers work, some full time. Although researchers did not document caregiver income at site visits, program administrators confirmed that most of the families they serve are impoverished.
  • Caregiver education level. More than a third of children in kinship care are being raised by caregivers without a high school diploma (Ehrle et al., 2001). Limited formal education appears to be most common among older, female caretakers, whose generation likely had more limited opportunities for higher education.
  • Number of children in care. Many kinship caregivers are rearing more than one related child, often in addition to children of their own. National data show that one in five kinship caregivers have four or more children in their household (Ehrle et al., 2001). Programs visited reported similar results and noted the intense pressures and service needs of older caregivers who are responsible for multiple children.
  • Reason for kinship arrangement. Parental substance abuse is a major reason why children move out of their parents' homes, according to national research. In focus groups, kinship caregivers overwhelmingly identified substance abuse as the primary reason for rearing a related child. Moreover, a lack of child welfare agency involvement does not mean that the child did not suffer abuse or neglect. In fact, many of the kinship caregivers who had no child welfare contact noted that they had stepped forward to care for a related child when they discovered the child had been physically or sexually abused, either by the child's mother or by the mother's boyfriend.