On Their Own Terms: Supporting Kinship Care Outside of TANF and Foster Care. Implications for Child Welfare Policy Makers


Foster care payments are so much higher than TANF child-only payments that kin may be able to get greater financial support and access to services by inviting child welfare involvement.

Regardless of when and how states choose to use kinship caregivers, child welfare policy makers must understand that kinship care is a unique phenomenon that touches all parts of the child welfare system.

  • Child abuse and neglect reporting:  Reports of abuse and neglect are often made by kin. Sometimes these are unfounded reports motivated by a custody dispute, but often they are reports from relatives who are truly concerned about the well being of a related child. Child welfare agencies have a choice in how they respond to reports of abuse and neglect filed by relatives, especially when kin who are already caring for a related child seek out child welfare assistance. Many kinship caregivers noted that they were caring for children as a result of abuse and neglect but were denied alternative kinship care services because the child welfare agency was not responsible for placing the child. These kin felt they were wrongfully punished for stepping in on behalf of a child before the child welfare agency.

    Policy makers have also argued that the existing framework for financing and supporting kinship care may unintentionally give caregivers incentives to enter the already over-burdened child welfare system. Because kin are eligible for TANF child-only payments regardless of their income or work participation, many have questioned whether parents may relinquish the care of their children to kin so that kin receive the TANF child-only payments. At the same time, foster care payments are so much higher than TANF child-only payments that kin may be able to get greater financial support and access to services by inviting child welfare involvement.

    Recent changes to federal child welfare policy(25) allow a state to seek federal reimbursement when it takes legal custody of a child who was already in kinship care. The state would then be able to offer the kin caregiver a foster care payment. If kin have a significant financial incentive to enter the child welfare system, some fear that such "paper removals" could significantly increase the kinship foster care population. Moreover, it may be very difficult for child welfare agencies to determine whether or not a private kinship care arrangement was the result of abuse or neglect.

  • Using kin to prevent removal from the birth parent's home:  Few of the alternative kinship care programs identified seek to reunify children in kinship care with their birth parents. It appears that many of the alternative programs are focused on intervening when it has already been determined that the likelihood of reunification is slim. At the same time, many child welfare agencies are seeking strategies to use kin as a resource to prevent the removal of children from their parents' homes. For example, at least 25 states are implementing Family Group Decision Making models to involve extended family members in developing and carrying out service plans. In some states, child welfare agencies are placing children with kin but allowing birth parents to live with the kin as well. Such arrangements can reduce the trauma children experience and kin can model good parenting practices.
  • Using kin as foster parents: While experts and policy makers generally agree that children who cannot live with their parents can benefit from being cared for by relatives, there is still widespread debate as to when kin should be used as foster parents and how they should be financially compensated when they are. Questions have been raised about the safety of kinship care, whether kin should receive the same payments as non-kin foster parents, and the unintended incentives created by providing foster care payments to kin.

    Are kinship care arrangements safe for children? Some argue that "the apple does not fall far from the tree" and question whether the grandparents who raised abusive children are abusive themselves. Most kinship care arrangements, however, result from parental neglect. While some evidence suggests that abuse may be intergenerational, there is no evidence to suggest that neglect is intergenerational. At the same time, both neglect and kinship care are often linked to substance abuse which has been shown to have intergenerational aspects. Experts and policy makers also question whether kin may have difficulty controlling children's contact with their parents, which could place children at risk of ongoing abuse.

    Some contend that it is inappropriate for relatives to receive money, particularly foster care payments for what is seen as a familial duty ¾caring for a family member in a time of need. Others argue, however, that the basic needs of abused and neglected children are the same, irrespective of the relationship to the caregiver, and that the government has a responsibility to ensure that these needs are met.

    If child welfare agencies are going to continue to use kin as foster parents they need to acknowledge their fundamental differences from non-kin and respond accordingly. For example, non-kin foster parents are already licensed when they first receive a child. They are informed of their responsibilities and the role of the child welfare agency. They have voluntarily and with foresight agreed to become foster parents. They may also get support (both emotional and technical) from a local foster parent association. In contrast, kin generally are not licensed as foster parents when they are thrust into their new caregiving role. Unless they have acted as a foster parent in the past, they likely have little or no knowledge about what their role is and how child welfare workers can assist them. Kin may even fear contact with the child welfare system and/or resent their involvement. Kin are also unlikely to participate in foster parent associations.

    These differences suggest the need for alternative service delivery approaches for kin. States can provisionally license kin while they are meeting full licensing requirements.(26) States can design specialized training and/or orientation sessions for kin. Child welfare agencies can organize support groups specifically for kinship caregivers. Because kin are less likely to request assistance from child welfare agencies, workers may need to be more persistent in offering supports. Child welfare agencies may need to explore alternative service delivery approaches that are less threatening to kin, approaches that make kin more comfortable requesting and accepting assistance. Training is vital to the new service delivery approach. Many child welfare workers have misconceptions about kinship care and some have personal beliefs about how kin should be supported that may contradict agency policy or guidance.

  • Achieving permanency for kinship care children:  With the focus on permanency planning amplified by ASFA, it is not surprising that many alternative kinship care programs focus on helping kin who want to make a permanent commitment to care for a related child. Some have argued that once kin begin receiving foster care payments, they may be less likely to take permanent custody of related children because ongoing financial support from child welfare is often contingent on adoption,(27) something many kin are unwilling to do. Likewise, because foster care payments are considerably more than what a poor parent can get through TANF, some have argued that foster care payments may provide a disincentive to reunification with a child's parent. Moreover, some have suggested that birth parents may feel less urgency for reunification when relatives care for their children since the birth parents can visit their children whenever they want.

    At the federal level, the policy debate has focused on whether the federal government should treat guardianship arrangements like adoption by allowing states to claim reimbursement under title IV-E for such arrangements. In the Report to Congress on Kinship Care, the Secretary of HHS noted that more information was needed about the long-term outcomes of subsidized guardianship, before the federal government could adequately assess whether they should be supported. However, more than half the states have moved forward with subsidized guardianship programs and many receive federal funds (under title IV-E through waivers, TANF, or the Social Services Block Grant). Expanding title IV-E to provide an open-ended entitlement for subsidized guardianship could result in significant cost shifting. Moreover, as adoption provides eligibility for a host of other programs, changes to federal policy on guardianship in child welfare may have a broader impact.