I want to invite you into the narrative of kinship care. On a road trip many years ago, my parents told my sisters and me that our cousin was going to come live with us. My siblings and I, though young at the time, had questions and wondered why. The conversation continued, and after a short time, our family stepped into six years of informal kinship care.
Family creates a unique connection. The bond within families goes well past shared eye colors and last names, in fact, a family bond extends past just the immediate family. So when the well-being of a child is at risk and he or she cannot flourish or thrive in the immediate family, is there a way to keep them within the family without jeopardizing their safety or health?
While foster care and adoption are two common options for children when it is not safe or possible for them to live with their biological parents, there is sometimes another available option: kinship care. Kinship care allows children to remain within the familiarity of the family.
Kinship care places a child under the care of a relative when he or she cannot safely remain under the care of the parent(s). One in 11 children lives in kinship care at some point prior to his or her 18th birthday, a fact that should compel us to learn more about what kinship care looks like, the government’s role in kinship care, and why social safety net programs are so vital to the ability of families to continue kinship care.
At a Glance
How do nearly 10 percent of children experience kinship placement at some point before their 18th birthday? There are three main kinds of kinship care: informal, voluntary, and formal.
In informal kinship care, the family decides that the child would be better off in the care of relatives. Biological parents do not lose their custody in this type of kinship care. Reasons for choosing informal kinship care can range from an illness the biological parent is facing, a child not flourishing in the biological family’s environment, a parent sent overseas, or a variety of other reasons that a biological parent is unable to care for that child.
In voluntary kinship placement a local, state child welfare organization such as Child Protective Services is involved but custody remains with the biological parent(s). This kind of placement generally happens when a social worker notes signs of abuse or neglect from biological parents without enough substantiated evidence to take away custody. The placement of the child is made by a court decision or by a child welfare agency in conjunction with the family.
Finally, with formal kinship care, full custody is relinquished or removed from the biological parent(s) and placed with the state. Just as in foster care, the state begins the placement process for the child, but placement is with a relative.
Kinship care is considered to be better for children who cannot stay under the care of their biological parent(s) because separation from parents is traumatic as it is, so being able to keep them within the familiarity of family during a time when the world is turning upside down is preferable. Kinship care providers and foster families are heroes in our community and are worthy of all the support we can give them. Most families who foster a child choose to do so, but unlike foster care, kinship care chooses you. Kinship care families take a big risk when they say “yes” to caring for children they did not plan to care for. Therefore, their finances, emotional state, and family structure are often stretched. After kinship care families say “yes,” how can we support them in our communities?
Adding a child to the family can bring a large financial strain, especially if that family is low-income, elderly, or unable to work anymore. In fact, over half of all children in kinship care live in a household whose income is below the poverty level.
The Social Safety Net and Kinship Care
In the Child Bureau’s “Kinship Caregivers and the Child Welfare System” factsheet, for the authors note,
Many grandparents and other relative caregivers struggle with the costs of providing for the children under their care. Depending on a number of factors, including the caregiver’s age, caregiver’s income, child’s income, child’s disability status, the number of siblings, and the legal status of the caregiving arrangement (i.e., voluntary or foster care), there may be financial supports available.
Most families do not plan to take on the responsibility of an additional child through kinship care and because of this, many families are left desperately trying to make ends meet in order that they may care for their relatives. However, there are programs available to kinship care providers. Without these programs, families might not otherwise be able to take in these children.
Programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) all help to fill the financial gap that opens up when families begin caring for an additional child. These programs provide a safety net for kinship care families.
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) is appropriately named as it exists to provide short-term support to low-income kinship care family with basic needs. TANF’s assistance is limited to 60 months in an adult’s lifetime and is funded by grants from the federal government given to local states to run. TANF regulations vary per state but most recipients are required to agree to certain terms. For example, in Texas, recipients of TANF must agree to not quit a job, to take parenting classes, to abstain from drug and alcohol abuse, and to ensure the children in their care are educated and vaccinated. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is an additional program for low-income families otherwise known as the Food Stamps program, which helps kinship care families to be able to provide food as they take on another child.
Not only are there programs in place to ease the financial burden of caring for kinship-placed children, but there is also a health insurance program called Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) to help these families. CHIP is available to many children who are under the care of relatives. Just like TANF, individual states have unique regulations for children to be able to become recipients of CHIP.
Part of the newly proposed federal budget makes cuts to programs like TANF, SNAP, and CHIP that make it possible for many families to participate in the kinship care system. Instead of tuning out when we hear about the proposed federal budget, what if the narrative of kinship care came to mind? We need to lean into the story because we now know that resources supporting the work of grandparents, aunts, and uncles caring for their family’s children will be greatly affected. Let’s be a people who lean in, stand up, lift our voices to advocate for the heroes in our communities who work to provide a safe and healthy environment for children.
-Kelsie Doan lives in Scottsdale, Arizona and is a recent graduate of Fuller Theological Seminary where she earned her M.A. in Intercultural Studies. When not pursuing her passion of educating and mobilizing the local church to do justice, she loves spending time at a good coffee shop and exploring new cities.