What Is Kinship Care?
Kinship care is when relatives step up to raise children when their parents can’t care for them for the time being. Today, more than 2.5 million children are in kinship care in the United States. If you were raised by a grandparent, an aunt or a close friend, you were raised under kinship care.
Types of Kinship Fostering
What are the three types of kinship-based support? There is no uniform definition of kinship care, but there are three sometimes overlapping categories:
Private or Informal Kinship Care
These are arrangements made by families, with or without legal recognition of the caregiver’s status. Clear practice guidelines and the collection of accurate, consistent child-level information are needed to know the number of children living in informal kinship arrangements (facilitated by child welfare agencies).
Diversion Kinship Care
In some cases, child welfare agencies work with parents to facilitate moving a child to a relative’s care, sometimes by opening a case and sometimes by doing an assessment or child protection investigation (arrangements vary widely by jurisdiction). This category, called kinship diversion (also known as foster care diversion, voluntary placement or safety planning, among other terms), includes all children who have come to the attention of child welfare agencies and live with a relative or close friend of the family. Most of these children — an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 — are not in formal foster care.
Licensed or Unlicensed Kinship Care
In 2021, more than 134,000 children and teens were in kinship foster care, defined as living with relatives but remaining in the legal custody of the state. This group represents 35% of all children in foster care, up from 27% in 2011.
The Deep-Rooted History of Kinship Care
Throughout history, families have cared for relative children during times of illness, poverty, incarceration, death, violence or other family crises. Many cultures continue this practice to this day, often outside of the social service or court systems.
In the past, many professionals have wondered whether child welfare systems might do a better job raising children than kin families with financial or other challenges. Today, most child welfare professionals agree that placing children with appropriate kin is the best living situation for children whose parents aren’t able to care for them safely at home.
Some Facts About Kinship Care
- One in 11 children lives in kinship care at some point before turning 18.
- One in five black children spends time in kinship care at some point.
What are some kinship care benefits?
Compared to children in the general foster care population, kids in kinship care tend to be:
- better able to adjust to their new environment;
- less likely to experience school disruptions;
- less likely to experience behavioral and mental health problems;
- more stable — they move less than kids in nonfamily foster care settings and have lower rates of re-abuse; and
- more likely to stay with their siblings and maintain lifelong connections to family.
Kinship care also helps to minimize trauma for children and preserve their cultural identity and connections to their communities.
Kids and their kinship caregivers need assistance; often caregivers do not realize they are eligible for financial help or other services:
- Fewer than 12% of kinship caregivers receive help from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, although nearly all are eligible, according to the Foundation’s report, Stepping Up for Kids.
- A recent report by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) found that less than a third (30%) of kinship caregivers received foster care training and even smaller shares received other support services such as peer support groups (9%) and respite care (4%).
- The same report found that 22% of kinship caregivers received help obtaining Medicaid for children in their care, compared to 54% of nonrelative foster caregivers.
- Just over half of formal kinship caregivers (52%) and voluntary kinship caregivers (58%) received food assistance (WIC or food stamps).
- Housing support was received by only 6% of voluntary kinship caregivers and 9% of formal kinship caregivers.
- In addition, kids in kinship care with cognitive and academic difficulties are less likely to receive needed early intervention or special education services than their peers in nonrelative foster care, and unmet needs are especially pronounced in voluntary kinship families, according to a 2020 ACF report.
Interested to know what young people think about kinship care? Check out Boundless Futures: Building a Youth-Focused Child Welfare System, authored by the 2019 class of foster youth interns for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Two of the interns’ reports (No. 3 and No. 10) propose kinship policy improvements.
Kinship Care Resources for Agencies and Caseworkers
- Engaging Kinship Caregivers: Managing Risk Factors in Kinship Care (a five-part video training series)
- Supporting Kinship Caregivers Through the Family First Prevention Services Act
- Kinship Care When Parents Are Incarcerated
- Variations in the Use of Kinship Diversion Among Child Welfare Agencies
- Does Your Child Welfare Agency Divert Children to Kin?
Kinship Policy Resources
- Stepping Up for Kids: What Government and Communities Should Do to Support Kinship Families
- Keeping Kids in Families: Trends in U.S. Foster Care Placement
Resources for Kinship Caregivers and Their Communities
- Five Ways to Help Kinship Caregivers Now
- Coping with the Unique Challenges of Kinship Care (a four-part video training series)
See more Kinship Care resources from the federal government’s Child Welfare Information Gateway.