What is Kinship Care?

Updated on April 27, 2020 and originally 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, near­ly 2.7 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 are 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 — up to 400,000 — are not in for­mal fos­ter care.

Licensed or unli­censed kin­ship care.

In 2017, near­ly 141,000 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 32% of all chil­dren in fos­ter care, up from 24% in 2008.

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 The Kin­ship Diver­sion Debate today.

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 prob­lems and psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders; and
  • more sta­ble — they move less than kids in non­fam­i­ly fos­ter care settings.

Kids and their kin­ship care­givers need assis­tance; often care­givers do not real­ize they are eli­gi­ble for finan­cial help:

  • Few­er than 12% of kin­ship care­givers receive help from Tem­po­rary Assis­tance for Needy Fam­i­lies, although near­ly all are eligible.
  • Only 42% of low-income kin­ship fam­i­lies get Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram ben­e­fits (food stamps).
  • Only 42% of chil­dren are cov­ered by Medicaid.
  • Assis­tance with child care and hous­ing costs are received by only 17% and 15% of kin­ship fam­i­lies, respectively.

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:

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