Family members are increasingly stepping up to take in the children of parents in their extended families who cannot do so. Who are these families? Who are the children? What are their needs and their challenges? The Annie E. Casey Foundation has published a comprehensive report that answers these questions, and provides more information about this expanding family structure in America.
The report indicates there is a growing trend across the country of grandparents, uncles and aunts, adult siblings, godparents and family friends stepping up and into parental roles to provide kinship care for needy children, both informally through extended families or formally through state-supervised foster care. “Kinship care” means the care of children by relatives or close friends of a family when parents are unable to do so and are not present. Circumstances including death of the parents; physical disability; mental illness or substance abuse; incarceration and military deployment and situations of neglect; and abuse or abandonment create the need for kinship care, which may last a week, month, year, or lifetime. According to the report:
• 2.7 million children in America are recipients of kinship care, nearly an 18% increase over the past decade.
• Of these children, 104,000 are part of the formal public welfare foster care system.
• One-fourth of all children placed in formal foster care are placed with kin.
• In the past decade, the number of children in kinship care grew six times faster than the number of children in the general population (18% versus 3%).
• One in 11 children have lived in kinship care for at least three consecutive months before the age of 18.
• The likelihood that African-American children will live in kinship care is more that twice that of the overall population: one in five black children will experience kinship care during their childhood.
• In Minnesota, 2% of all children are in public or private kinship care (21,000), 17% of which are in state-supervised kinship foster care.
• Approximately 400,000 children have been “diverted” into informal kinship families with the assistance of a welfare worker, without the system taking legal custody or formal oversight responsibility of the children.
• 60% of kinship care providers are age 50+.
Kinship care providers face physical and emotional strain raising children often traumatized by loss of parents. When compared to a family in which one parent is present, kinship care providers are more likely to live below the household poverty line, be unemployed or employed less than full-time, be retired and be disabled, and incur greater monthly expenses.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation was established in 1948 and is devoted to addressing the needs of disadvantaged children and families, including children separated from parents, and has a special focus on kids in foster care. Headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland, the Foundation was created by James Casey (1888-1983), a co-founder of United Parcel Service, and named and dedicated to his mother.
Laura Speer, the foundation’s associate director of policy reform and data, says it is the largest child-focused philanthropic foundation in the country, funded with a $3 billion endowment and annually distributing $190 million in grants to nonprofits across the country dedicated to the promoting the needs and well-being of vulnerable children and families. Its latest policy Kids Count report Stepping Up for Kids: What Government and Communities Should Do to Support Kinship Families was published earlier this year.
Kinship care keeps children remain “in the family.” They experience the sense of belonging—they identify with family; they benefit from a sense of stability during a time of separation from parents. They feel safe and do not face the uncertainty of foster care outside extended family. They better adjust to new environments, are less likely to suffer behavior problems and psychiatric disorders and experience less school disruption compared to non-kin foster care children.
“What we’ve found is that if kids generally can’t be with their parents, in a parent birth parent kind of situation, in a stable healthy family, the best possible next option is that they are placed with people that they know, and that they trust, in extended families or in close family friends—with close connections that they know,” says Laura Speer, the foundation’s associate director of policy reform and data. She adds, “We’ve found that because they’re more likely to stay with their siblings, more likely to stay in their community, in their neighborhoods, and likely be able to stay in their schools, and all that is so important for the general trauma that happens with a child when they are separated from their parents.”
The Kids Count report advocates for poicies, resources and benefits to support kinship families and identifies several existing resources:
– Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
– Child Health Insurance Program (CHIP)
– Guardian Assistance Program (GAP)
– Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program
– National School Lunch Program
– National Family Caregiver Support Program
– Childcare and housing assistance
– Earned Income Tax Credit for working kinship caregivers
In addition to spotlighting these resources, the report focuses on additional areas and “best ideas” to further support kinship families with the knowledge of and access to programs and resources:
– Coordinate efforts to educate community, public agencies and kinship families about available resources and eligibility requirements (in Minnesota, the Children Defense Fund’s “Bridges to Benefits” project).
– Support the needs of biological parents of kinship children so reunification may occur.
– Improve both the consistency of state-by-state reliance on placing children with kin.
– Remove impediments to training and licensing kin as foster parents.
– Implement opportunities for affordable legal representation.
– Improve and increase financial stability.
– Design programs that can meet the unique needs of private and public kinship families.
– Have all states opt into the Federal Guardian Assistance Program.
Speer says, “[There are] policies out there that can be changed as well as legal barriers that can be overcome that would make a huge difference for these families. We structured our report around those basic ideas and spell out what was the research behind it and why this is good for kids.”
Speer described the Kids Count report as a “data-based advocacy project.” The Foundation collects and disseminates data related to at-risk children. It identifies relevant issues as well as state and national resources intended to meet the needs of vulnerable children and families. Data sources used in the report include the U.S. Census and the federal Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). The Foundation also has data support from grantee organizations in each state—for example, the Minnesota Children’s Defense Fund. Marcie Jefferys, Policy Development Director of the MCDF, indicated that last week, the MCDF published its 2012 Minnesota Kids Count Data Book.
“We hope to have success in raising the visibility of these families on the public agenda nationally,” says Speer. “There are millions of people around the country who have stepped up [and] taken on the role of being a kinship caregiver. There are things that can be done to help them. The job that they are taking on is so critically important for the kids that they are stepping up to help.”