Kinship Care in the United States: An Overview

kinship care in the united statesThe number of children in kinship care in the United States is growing. This shift has led to new challenges for families and the development of special programs to meet their unique needs.

Across the United States, many aunts, uncles, grandparents, other relatives and family friends are providing care to children who are unable to live with their birth parents. This method of care is commonly referred to as kinship care. Relatives and family friends, who are known to a child, can often help ease the pain and sorrow of separating from a parent by offering a safe and nurturing environment.

Types of Kinship Care in the United States

The nature of the care tends to fall into one of four categories:

  • Informal: Arrangements are made by the parents and other family members without any involvement from either the child welfare system or the court system. This may occur when the parents are hospitalized, compelled to work out of the area or other similar situations.
  • Voluntary: After acknowledging that a child’s needs are not being met, the parents, in cooperation with state authorities, choose to surrender the child. This cooperation avoids the state pursuing legal custody. In this case, the child lives with the relatives but may remain in the parents’ legal custody.
  • Formal: The state agency has acted in concert with the courts in obtaining legal custody. With formal kinship care, the child’s kinship caregivers have rights and responsibilities similar to those of non-relative foster parents.
  •   Kinship Legal Guardianship: Caregivers choose to take an additional step and make a legal commitment to the child/children in their care.

Kinship care families need various types of support. These services vary among states.

Kinship Care in the United States: Support Services

Many grandparents and other relative caregivers struggle to provide all the necessities for the children under their care. According to the 2002 Urban League and the National Survey of American Families, over 50% of children in kinship care live in low-income homes. Close to 52% live with a caregiver over the age of 50. These figures are significantly higher than for children in non-kinship care households. Depending on the caregiver’s age and income, child’s income, child’s disability status and the number of siblings living at the home, there may be financial support available. Some of this support may come from these programs:

  • The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program was created to provide monetary assistance while helping low-income families become self-sufficient.
  • Food stamps are available to families with low incomes. The entire household’s income will be considered, and the children in kinship care can be included in family size for determining benefit amount.
  • Supplemental Security Income (SSI) may be available to children in kinship care who are disabled. Information about all SSI benefits is available from your local Social Security office or online.
  • Foster care payments may be available for kinship caregivers. The requirements for receiving these payments vary from state to state. However, since the passage of the Fostering Connections Act, states have the option to use title IV-E funds for kinship guardianship payments.
  • Kinship caregivers who are licensed foster parents taking care of children placed with them by their local child welfare agency or court also may be eligible for monthly payments.

Children who have experienced abuse or neglect should be assessed to see what professional services they might need, including therapy or counseling. If children are assessed and it is determined that they require special services, these may be available through the state child welfare agency or the local school system. All kinship caregivers should closely follow the progress of the children’s therapy and counseling.

Children in kinship care have the same health needs as all children. Many children being raised by relatives are eligible for medical insurance through either Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Medicaid provides coverage for many health-care expenses for low-income children and adults, including visits to the doctor, checkups, screenings, prescriptions and hospitalization. CHIP benefits, eligibility and coverage vary from state to state. Every state permits kinship caregivers to apply for Medicaid or CHIP on behalf of the children for whom they are caring.

Any kinship caregiver seeking a short break from full-time childcare may look into respite care. Respite care refers to a program that gives caregivers a break by taking over the care of the children for short periods of time. This can be regularly scheduled or when a caregiver goes to the hospital, needs to travel for work or otherwise be away from home for a few days. Some respite programs include summer camp or other similar programs away from the home. Considering the added or new responsibilities entailed with kinship care, respite care may be beneficial to all parties.

Kinship Care in the United States: State Programs

Oklahoma has two interesting support mechanisms. Paid childcare is provided if both adults are employed outside the home at least twenty hours per week. A stipend is paid for enrolling and completing a specialized 27-hour education program.

A Kinship Caregivers Support Program (KCSP) is available in Washington State. KCSP provides navigation through the child welfare system, critical utilities assistance and direct financial help to eligible families in need.

Oregon established Keeping Foster and Kin Parents Trained and Supported (KEEP), an evidence-based support and skill enhancement education program for foster and kinship parents. The program supports foster families by promoting child well-being.

KEEP groups are led by a facilitator and a co-facilitator who are trained to implement the program staying true to the validated model. KEEP does not use a “one size fits all” curriculum. The facilitators tailor each session to the specific needs, circumstances and priorities of participating parents. The meetings are designed to be flexible and fun.

Kinship Care in the United States: New Jersey

New Jersey’s Division of Family and Community Partnerships supports certain kinship caregivers with a special program. According to their website, caregivers may qualify for Wrap Around Services, which provide funding for short-term or one-time expenses such as furniture, moving costs and clothing for the relative child. To qualify for Wrap Around Services, kinship caregivers must prove they are relatives or legal guardians of the children and that the children live with them. Financial eligibility depends on the kinship caregiver’s age and the size and income of the family unit.

Foster and Adoptive Family Services (FAFS) can help answer kinship caregivers’ questions. They will assist with the necessary paperwork and explain the ins and outs of becoming a licensed relative caregiver in New Jersey. FAFS’ services are free; the FAFS Information Line phone number is 1.800.222.0047.

There are many local programs supporting kinship and foster parent operated through state agencies, nonprofit organizations or educational institutions across the nation. Start locally and be assured that there are conscientious and caring professionals who want to assist you with your kinship care questions or concerns.

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