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

09/01/2001

The upcoming reauthorization of TANF in late 2002 sets the stage for policymakers to assess key policies and provisions embodied in the current welfare reform legislation. This assessment will need to consider the changing composition and needs of the TANF population and low-income families. Families receiving child-only grants, many of whom are relatives caring for children, now comprise a significant share (29 percent) of the total TANF caseload. Whereas reducing welfare dependency among single mothers with children has been a prime focus of past welfare reform efforts, TANF reauthorization provides an important opportunity to develop policies which better address and respond to families receiving or eligible for child-only grants.

TANF agencies are just now beginning to consider how the flexibility of the TANF block grant could better serve kinship care families that have traditionally been served through the child welfare system or the TANF system. They can be used to fund additional payments and services for child-only cases or they can be used to fund alternative programs for kinship families involved in the child welfare system. Better coordination between TANF and child welfare programs could help ensure that staff and financial resources from both programs are leveraged and used most appropriately in serving kinship care families.

TANF policymakers may also want to consider service delivery approaches that reduce the stigma of welfare for kinship caregivers. This includes strategies such as creating a separate office for handling kinship care cases or allowing kin to apply by mail or by phone. A simple name change, from "welfare" to something that suggests that government is thanking kin for taking on the responsibility of caring for a related child, could remove the "hand out" connotation that many kinship care families dislike.

At the state level, policymakers may also want to consider two technical changes. The first would be to broaden the definition of "kin." Under AFDC, the federal government defined rather narrowly which relatives could receive child-only AFDC payments. Under TANF, states define "relative caregiver." As a result, many kin are not eligible to receive TANF because they are not closely related, if related at all, to the children they care for. And in many states, the child welfare agency will place a child with such kin but will not necessarily license them, excluding them from foster care payment eligibility. If they do not meet the strict definition of relative under TANF, they could in fact be caring for a child in state custody and not be eligible to receive any ongoing payment.

The second technical change would affect child support enforcement policy. Child support cooperation requirements may place kin caregivers in a difficult position. They may choose not to apply or comply with cooperation requirements out of fear that the birth parents will take their children back if they were forced to pay child support. States may want to examine their good cause exceptions and make sure they can be applied under certain circumstances for TANF child-only cases.