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Children in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Child-Only Cases with Relative Caregivers

Publication Date
May 31, 2004


  1. Background
  2. Research Questions and Methods
  3. Key Findings


Since the establishment of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, much attention has been given to reductions in the number of welfare cases. Welfare cases declined nationally by 52 percent between 1996 and 2001; however, child-only cases declined by much less. Thus, while the number of child-only cases has fluctuated over time, their proportionate share of the TANF caseload has increased.

Children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers occupy uncertain territory between the TANF and the child welfare service systems. Since these children are exempt from work requirements and not expected to move to self-sufficiency prior to adulthood, they are not well aligned with the TANF agency's expectations and service offerings. Because they have not been identified as having experienced maltreatment, they are outside the child welfare system's protective mandate, although they may be in need of supportive services.

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Research Questions And Methods

This study used a mixed-method design to address the following research questions:

  • What are the demographics, family circumstances, service system involvement, service needs, and well-being of children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers?
  • What policies and program structures shape states' responses to children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers?
  • How do states assess, respond to, and monitor the needs and well-being of children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers?

Researchers used three complementary strategies to address the research questions:

  • a comprehensive review of literature to describe what is known about children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers, their well-being, and state policies and practices regarding these cases;
  • secondary analysis of data from two national surveys: the National Survey of Child and Adolescent Well-being (NSCAW), and the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP); and
  • case studies of five states to describe the service needs and well-being of children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers from the perspectives of TANF agency staff, child welfare agency staff, and relative caregivers.

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Key Findings

The complementary research activities comprising this study yielded mixed findings regarding the service needs and well-being of children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers. Taken together, these findings suggest both advantages of relative caregiver arrangements for children in TANF child-only cases and cause for concern. Children who enter relative care do so as a result of serious disruption in their parents' ability to care for them. Under such circumstances, relative care is believed to be preferable to either parental care or foster care with nonrelatives. However, these children often experience substantial difficulties as a result of the previous experiences and separation from parents, and the TANF system lacks the necessary resources to respond to them.

Key findings from this study stress these dual themes of protection and risk:

Many children enter informal kinship care as a result of circumstances that could justify child welfare involvement. Previous research shows that many children enter relative care as a result of maltreatment, substance abuse or mental illness of their parents, which may or may not have attracted attention from child welfare agencies. Service providers and relative caregivers in case study sites agree that children enter relative care due to serious disruptions in parenting, leading to serious risk or actual maltreatment. However, it is impossible to estimate how many of these children have experienced maltreatment that would have warranted child welfare involvement had it been recognized, or how frequently the availability of kinship care averted abuse or neglect.

Relative care is considered preferable to other forms of out-of-home care, but often entails substantial sacrifice on the part of the caregiver. Child welfare practice favors placement with relatives, based on extensive research indicating that children fare better with relative caregivers. NSCAW data suggest that children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers are more likely to receive preventive health care than children in foster care, and have favorable status with respect to developmental indicators and mental health. However, states vary widely on the extent to which relative caregivers become licensed foster parents, eligible for foster care stipends. Unlicensed relative foster parents, like relative caregivers outside of the child welfare system, typically must manage the care of a child with far less financial support than is offered to foster parents.

Many children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers have extensive unmet needs. Previous research has established that children in relative care have physical, emotional, developmental, and educational needs at a rate far higher than children living with their parents. In addition to effects of separation from their parents, they experience long-term problems related to the experiences that precipitated relative care. Although secondary analysis of SIPP and NSCAW found that children in TANF child-only relative care were frequently in more favorable circumstances than those in other TANF households with respect to economic indicators and health care use, they demonstrated higher rates of mental health problems, trauma, and educational difficulties. Case study informants from both TANF and child welfare agencies, as well as relative caregivers participating in focus groups, describe a high prevalence of complex needs among children in relative care. Many relative caregivers have neither the personal nor financial resources necessary to respond to these needs.

Children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers fall between the mandates of the child welfare and TANF systems. The TANF child-only grant provides basic financial support to children cared for by relatives not legally responsible for them, but rarely offers assessments or services appropriate to these children's needs. High caseloads and lack of expertise in children's issues further limit the ability of TANF workers to respond to children's needs. The child welfare system is oriented to child well-being and service provision, but when relative care removes children from actual or imminent harm, it effectively removes them from the child welfare system's mandate. In addition, fear of the child welfare system's authority makes many relative caregivers reluctant to seek out services for which children could qualify.

Further research could guide effective services. Enhanced services to this readily accessible population could yield substantial impact. Their connection to the TANF system provides an opportunity - for the most part, unrealized - to identify vulnerable children, provide services in a manner that does not threaten family bonds, and prevent entry to the child welfare system. However, currently available data is not sufficient to assess the needs and well-being of children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers, nor to understand how their interactions with service systems might provide opportunities for service provision.

Three types of information are needed:

  • Mapping the overlap between TANF and child welfare. Data on the overlap between the TANF and child welfare system is sparse. Studies in states where administrative data systems allow matching of child welfare and TANF records would provide useful information about system involvement over time, service financing, access to services and gaps in service delivery among children in TANF child-only cases with relative caregivers.
  • Assessing the needs of both children and relative caregivers. Data on children's physical, emotional, behavioral, mental health and educational needs could clarify relationships between case characteristics and risks to children's well-being. Data on relative caregiver resources and needs could help identify potential threats to children's safety and caregivers' ability to provide long-term care. This information could help identify children and caregivers at increased risk and prioritize services.
  • Evaluating existing initiatives to serve children and relative caregivers. A variety of promising practices are developing, both within TANF agencies and as a result of collaborative efforts with child welfare agencies and aging services agencies. However, data on the effects of these interventions is scarce. Rigorous evaluations addressing the impact of innovative programs on service access, utilization and costs; child and caregiver well-being; and diversion from child welfare and adult TANF involvement could guide future efforts to respond to this population.


Low-Income Populations | Children | Caregivers
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)