What Is Kinship Care?

Updated May 20, 2023 | Posted February 6, 2014
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
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 300,000are 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.

To learn more about kin­ship diver­sion prac­tice, read Vari­a­tions in the Use of Kin­ship Diver­sion Among Child Wel­fare Agen­cies.

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

Kin­ship Pol­i­cy Resources

Resources for Kin­ship Care­givers and Their Communities

See more Kin­ship Care resources from the fed­er­al gov­ern­men­t’s Child Wel­fare Infor­ma­tion Gate­way.

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