National studies have documented that kinship care families face numerous challenges and have a variety of service needs. Kinship care children, whether or not they have been abused or neglected, are dealing with the emotional trauma of being separated from their parents. At the same time, many of their relative caretakers are older, have limited formal education, and are raising their relative children in impoverished environments. Many caregivers are caring for more than one related child, often in addition to their own children. Many families are eligible for public services such as TANF payments, food stamps and Medicaid, but are not receiving them.
Characteristics of Kinship Families
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.
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.
Opinions on Permanency Options
|"[Adoption] makes you relinquish your own [child's] parental rights. It doesn't benefit me to alienate my daughter and do that."
During each site visit, researchers attempted to document caregivers' opinions on different permanency options. While some of the caregivers were not sure of the permanency option they would choose if reunification efforts failed, we observed some common attitudes about permanency:
- Willingness to raise children until adulthood. Although decisions about a long-term commitment to the children often depend on the well-being of the birth parents and their own financial situation, overwhelmingly caregivers say they are willing to raise the children until they are adults if necessary. Despite popular belief to the contrary, many kin say that they are more than willing to adopt. Many of them are afraid of losing custody to the birth parents, and some noted that courts focus too much on parental rights. At A Second Chance in Pittsburgh, one caregiver stated, "Why not adopt? Then I can do what I want with them. They are really mine anyway." This sense of attachment and commitment to the children seems to be common among most caregivers.
On the other hand, relative caregivers often choose not to adopt for many reasons. They may not want to permanently terminate the rights of the birth parents, they may hope that the child will be reunified with the birth parents at some later point, or they simply may not be comfortable with the idea of adoption.
- Hopes for parental reunification. Most of the caregivers in these programs have, at some point, hoped for reunification between the relative child in their care and the child's birth parents. However, many of the caregivers had to make a more long-term commitment to the child. For example, program workers in Denver commented that many of the caregivers agree to take the child while thinking that the situation will only last a few months, but most of them have to become more comfortable with the idea of a longer commitment. It is particularly difficult for grandparent caregivers to give up on the idea of reunification. Many grandparent caregivers are hoping that their child will be able to parent again, despite the birth parent's past history of abuse or neglect of the child.
- Encountering barriers to adoption and guardianship. Many kinship caregivers who were eager to adopt or take guardianship of the children in their care reported significant barriers to completing the process. One of these barriers is financial. Caregivers noted that the legal fees for completing an adoption are at least $5,000, under the best case scenario in which the adoption is not contested. Moreover, these fees represent the cost per child and many caregivers are seeking to adopt multiple children. A second barrier identified is a simple lack of understanding about adoption or guardianship process. Many caregivers reported they experienced great difficulty in obtaining accurate information about the legal process. Finally, caregivers who had begun or completed the process noted numerous delays in finalizing their adoptions or guardianships, delays that entail both an emotional and financial cost.
Overall, the needs and circumstances of these caregivers vary in significant ways. While one kinship caregiver may be 26 years old, caring for her five younger brothers and sisters and trying to hold onto a job, another may be a 70-year-old grandmother raising her teenage grandson in a tiny apartment on a fixed income. The needs of these two caregivers are very different, and alternative kinship programs struggle with ways to serve them both. While some programs provide services such as financial assistance to meet the needs of this population, others are offering support groups and day care. Programs also struggle with deciding how to be structured and administered in order to meet the unique needs of kinship caregivers in a comprehensive and sensitive way.