What do President Barack Obama, Sen. Olympia Snowe and Oprah Winfrey have in common?
They, like more than 2.7 million children in America, were raised by grandparents or other relatives at some time in their lives. This longtime practice has become more prevalent in the last decade, which has seen an 18% increase in children living with relatives or close family friends because their parents can no longer care for them, according to a new KIDS COUNT report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. In fact, an estimated 9% of youths will live with extended family for at least three consecutive months at some point before age 18.
The rise of this practice, known as kinship care, demands immediate attention, according to the report, Stepping Up for Kids: What Government and Communities Should Do to Support Kinship Families. Many family members and friends who take on parental responsibilities with their often-limited incomes struggle to meet the basic needs of children — a problem that could be alleviated with increased access to and awareness of government and community programs.
“The Casey Foundation is dedicated to improving the lives of children and families, and that includes supporting extended family and others who take on the responsibility of raising kids,” President and CEO Patrick McCarthy said. “Research shows kids fare better when they remain in the safe, stable and familiar environment that relatives can provide. We urge state policymakers to make crucial benefits and resources available to kinship families so that their children can thrive and have the best shot at becoming successful adults.”
The new KIDS COUNT report details the types of challenges kinship caregivers encounter:
- Emotional. They must contend with child trauma from parental separation. And, as state agencies call on extended family to take in kids who enter the child welfare system, they may deal with emotional and behavioral issues tied to abuse or neglect.
- Legal. They sometimes lack the necessary legal authority to enroll a child for school, access basic medical care or give medical consent. Requirements for becoming licensed foster parents, which aren’t always applicable to kinship families, present additional hurdles to receiving the same benefits as non-relatives taking in children.
- Financial. They are more likely to be poor, single, older, less-educated and unemployed, which makes taking on such costs as child care and health insurance an extra burden. They often are unfamiliar with available government support programs or struggle to access them, particularly in the case of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) — the primary federal financial aid program for low-income families. Even those who receive TANF have difficulty making ends meet, with benefit levels averaging $249 per month for one child and $344 for two — far below U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates for the monthly cost of raising a child (an average $990 for one; $1,980 for two).
Stepping Up for Kids shows that kinship care is particularly prevalent in African-American families, where children are twice as likely as the general population to be raised by extended family and close friends at some point. The report identifies the various circumstances — including death, child abuse or neglect, military deployment, incarceration or deportation — that lead extended family to become primary caregivers.
It also highlights recommendations for states and communities to take advantage of existing federal funding for these families, and to strengthen them and help their kids flourish, avoiding greater costs down the road:
- Remove barriers within the child welfare system through policies that formally seek to involve relatives in a child’s care, and reforms to foster-home licensing requirements.
- Establish laws and resources to bolster kinship families by promoting stable housing, access to child health care and community-based services for older relatives.
- Increase their financial stability through TANF-funded programs designed to meet their unique needs.
“The federal government already has a solid framework in place for serving these families, and several states have taken steps to actively support extended family and friends as they assume their new caregiving roles,” said Robert Geen, director of family services and systems policy at the Foundation. “Every state and community needs to adopt such changes, especially addressing the needs of lower-income families.”
Stepping Up for Kids includes the latest kinship care data for every state, the District of Columbia and the nation. This information is available in the KIDS COUNT Data Center, which also contains the most recent national, state and local data on hundreds of indicators of child well-being. The Data Center allows users to create rankings, maps and graphs for use in publications and on websites, and to view real-time information on mobile devices.