On Their Own Terms: Supporting Kinship Care Outside of TANF and Foster Care. Needs and Challenges of Kinship Caregivers


"I had, kind of like a career; my life was interrupted, kids dropped on my doorstep, so to speak. The situation was so deplorable that any grandparent, that's your blood that's suffering like that, you have no other recourse than to do something about it. And at the time I was doing some pretty important things for myself; [it was] really the first time when all my kids were grown up and out of the house."

Many of the needs and challenges faced by kinship caregivers are directly related to the socio-demographic characteristics of both caregivers and related children. Needs also depend on the reason for the kinship living arrangement, the kinship family's adjustment to the arrangement, the kin caregiver's level of preparation for caregiving, and the types of supports the caregiver receives. At the same time, kinship caregivers are not a homogeneous group; their needs and the combinations of their needs can differ dramatically. The needs of this population present a challenge to those trying to serve them, but a number of common challenges were identified:

  • Lack of Preparedness. Most kin caregivers take on the responsibility in the midst of a crisis situation, often finding themselves with a child in their care within a few days of receiving a call out of the blue. Focus group participants spoke of being unprepared to meet immediate needs such as clothing, beds, and other furniture for a child's room. Many of their homes, including subsidized homes with occupancy limits, also had inadequate space for a child, and they were forced to consider other housing options. In particular, the amount of lead time and training that kinship caregivers are given to prepare prior to assuming their new caregiving responsibilities is very different from that of non-kin foster parents. Kinship caregivers often have to resolve these issues if they want to become licensed foster parents.
  • Financial assistance. Kinship caregivers often face tremendous financial burdens when they add a new member to their family. For example, many kinship caregivers are grandparents who are often retired with a fixed income. In focus groups, participants spoke of the financial difficulties associated with taking on caregiving responsibilities for a related child.
  • Mental health/emotional support. Kinship caregivers also need a great deal of emotional support, and kinship care children often need help with trauma or behavioral problems that result from the new living situation, separation from the birth parents, and prior abuse or neglect. Caregivers cited mental health counseling for their related child as one of their most pressing needs. Caregivers also expressed the need for respite time, recreation, mental health counseling for themselves, and most of all, support from others. Emotional support was noted as the most important long-term need of many caregivers in these programs.
  • Child care. Finding affordable child care that met their needs was a major challenge voiced by kinship caregivers. Because a large share of caregivers work outside the home, they often need child care. Many of the older caregivers voiced the need for respite time from the demanding role of caring for a child. Keeping a job is a major concern of many of the younger caregivers, since it is likely that they will be forced to take time off of work or change their work schedule due to their new living situation.
"She sometimes thinks I don't really know what I'm talking about, and I was from the stone ageI don't know, there are times when she and I-it's hard to communicate. I guess it's the difference in the age."
  • Transportation. Both caregiver and worker focus group participants mentioned transportation challenges. In some cases, caregivers are unable to participate in alternative program activities or get children to medical appointments because they do not have accessible transportation.
  • Tutoring for the child. Some older caregivers feel out of practice with parenting, and may have difficulty assisting children with their homework. These caregivers need assistance with tutoring the child, since they fear that the child's academic performance might suffer. A few caregivers expressed an interest in adult literacy classes so that they may personally assist the child with schoolwork.
  • Health insurance for the child. Health insurance for relative children is an issue for kin caregivers with and without health insurance. Even if a caregiver has health insurance, not all relative children are eligible under the caregiver's health plan. Many other caregivers do not have health insurance themselves and worry about the cost of health insurance for the child.
"We basically have no rights. We are not eligible for anything without a lawyer."
  • Legal assistance. Many caregivers need affordable legal assistance in making decisions around the custody of the child. For example, they want to know whether to pursue legal guardianship. Aggressive birth parents have a role in many of these family situations, and caregivers want to be informed of their options for protecting the child. Some caregivers also fear the legal system, and do not want to subject their family to a court battle. In Kentucky's support group program, grandparent caregivers said they would have to prove their child is "the scum of the earth" to gain permanent custody of the grandchild.