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"Kinship Care Policy and Low-Income Minority Children,"

by Jennifer Ehrle & Rob Green Many children are not able to live with their parents, possibly due to a parent’s death, incarceration, abuse or neglect, poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, or unwillingness to raise a child. National surveys suggest that anywhere from 2.5 to 3 million children (up to 18 years of age) live with neither of their parents. Most often it is relatives who step in to take care of these children. When children separated from their parents do not live with relatives, they are often living in non-relative foster homes or in institutions.January/February 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

Many children are not able to live with their parents, possibly due to a parent’s death, incarceration, abuse or neglect, poverty, mental illness, substance abuse, or unwillingness to raise a child. National surveys suggest that anywhere from 2.5 to 3 million children (up to 18 years of age) live with neither of their parents. Most often it is relatives who step in to take care of these children. When children separated from their parents do not live with relatives, they are often living in non-relative foster homes or in institutions.

While relatives provide children with a sense of family support and familiarity, these caregivers often experience poverty and other hardships that can make raising their relative children difficult. Despite these hardships, both welfare and child welfare policies often limit relative caregivers’ access to the support they need to care for related children.

Minority Children Separated From Their Parents

Minority children are significantly over-represented in the population of children not living with their parents and make up the majority of children in the population living with relatives. Of children living with relatives, well over half are minorities: 43% are black non-Hispanic, 17% are Hispanic, 3% Asian, American Indian or another race. Approximately one million black non-Hispanic children (9% of black non-Hispanic children) and 700,000 Hispanic children (6% of Hispanic children) live with neither parent. And while approximately 1.1 million white children live with neither of their parents present, this represents only about 3% of white children.

Children from low-income families (those with income below 200% of the Federal Poverty Line)–black non-Hispanic children in particular–are even more likely to find themselves separated from their parents. Nearly 11% of black non-Hispanic children from low-income families are living apart from both of their parents, compared with about 6% of white children and around 7% of Hispanic children in low-income families.

When Relatives Step In

Approximately 2.3 million children live in kinship care–that is, in a home with a relative without either parent present.

A large body of research suggests that a separation from a parent for an extended period of time can be potentially traumatic for a child. Children’s attachments to caregivers in the early years of life form a basis for developing relationships later in life. Hence, children need consistent care and nurturing from a primary caretaker. When this care is not provided, the effects can be potentially traumatic. Children separated from their parents can experience difficulties later in life in dealing with fear, anger and anxiety.

But when separation from a parent or parents is inevitable, research suggests that living with a relative may have significant benefits to the child by minimizing the trauma of the separation and providing the child with a sense of family support. A recent analysis of data from a national sample of children removed from their parents as a result of abuse or neglect shows that children placed with kin rather than with non-related foster parents feel closer to their caregivers, are more likely to talk with caregivers about problems, and feel a greater sense of permanency in their arrangements.

Yet at the same time many children in relative care experience significant economic hardship. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of children in kinship care live in low-income families. Relative caregivers may be financially stable when caring for their own families, but when children are added to their homes, their financial situation may become strained. Moreover, relative caregivers also tend to be older (two-thirds are grandparents), and many are likely to be retired, living on fixed incomes. These low-income families frequently experience other difficulties as well. For example, two in five children (39%) living in low-income kinship families live in families experiencing either crowding or trouble paying housing costs. And nearly half (48%) of children living in low-income kinship families experience some type of food insecurity, like worrying food will run out before there is money to buy more.

Another difficulty for some children in kinship care is living with a caregiver facing health challenges. Nearly half (45%) of children in kinship care live with a caregiver who has a limiting condition or who is in fair or poor health. The children in kinship care may face their own personal challenges. One in five either has a limiting condition or is in fair or poor health. And 11% of 6-to 17-year-olds in kinship care exhibit high levels of behavioral or emotional problems.

Services Received and Not Received

The current system to support children in kinship care blends services from two agencies: child welfare and welfare. The child welfare agency is charged with protecting children who have been abused or neglected. In 2002, over one-quarter of the children in kinship care were involved with a child welfare agency. While there are state variations, generally these agencies provide supervision and permanency planning for children taken into state custody and placed with relatives. The agency also provides foster care payments for children whose relatives become licensed foster parents. Approximately a third of relatives involved with the child welfare system become licensed. The advantage to becoming licensed is that they receive foster care payments. In 1999, foster care payments ranged among the various states from $250 to $657 per month, depending on the age of the child, with an overall national average of $403 per month. These payments are not prorated for additional children and do not include supplemental payments often provided to foster parents for clothing, school expenses or the care of special needs children.Yet to become licensed they have to go through a licensing process and training.

However, it is the welfare office that serves the majority of children in kinship care. It provides child-only grants to relatives caring for children not eligible for foster care payments. It also provides child-only grants to the children living with kin who are not involved with a child welfare agency. Kin in nearly every state, regardless of their income, who are caring for a relative child are eligible to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) child-only payments to help pay for the child’s care. Payment amounts differ widely from state to state; in 2000, they ranged from $68 to $514 per month for one child, with an average payment of $238 per month. These amounts are prorated at a declining rate for each additional child and do not vary depending on the age of the child.

Yet most children in kinship care live in families who do not receive foster care or child-only payments. Only about a quarter (27%) of children in kinship care live in families who receive either a child-only or foster care payment. Kin also fail to receive services that may assist with financial hardship, like housing, food stamps and childcare subsidies. Of those children in low-income families with housing difficulties, either crowding or trouble paying bills, the vast majority (88%) do not receive assistance, such as government help with bills or rent vouchers. Families who are income-eligible can receive food stamps to supplement their food supply, and for kinship families, the relative child will be included in their grant. Of those children in low-income kinship care families with food insecurity, about half (47%) do not receive food stamps. Childcare assistance may be very important to a low-income relative who works full-time but has just taken on the care of a new child. Of children in low-income kinship families with working caregivers, 83% of such families are not receiving childcare help from the government or other organization for any of the children in their families.

Policy Response

Research suggests that many kin report they are not aware they are eligible for benefits, do not want a handout, want to avoid involvement with public agencies, or have applied for benefits and been denied. However, state welfare and child welfare policies also contribute to the limited assistance available to kin.

State welfare payments are not nearly sufficient to raise a child. In 2001, states’ maximum welfare benefits averaged just 35% of the federal poverty level. While a few state welfare agencies have developed kin-specific grants that provide a higher level of support, they are the exceptions. Two key reasons that welfare benefits generally are kept so low are not applicable for kinship care families. First, welfare benefits are intentionally kept low so as not to provide an incentive for families to become dependent on public assistance; states want low-income families to have an incentive to work. While policymakers may still need to be concerned about kins’ financial incentives, it seems unlikely that the financial support made available to kin will have a significant impact on their motivation for taking on the burden of child-rearing. Policymakers must also be concerned about the incentives kin have to turn over a child to a child welfare agency in order to access higher foster care benefits. A second reason cited for low welfare benefits is a lack of political will to provide higher benefits. The public often blames welfare families for the situation they are in and may think that they are not deserving of greater support. While the public may question whether kin, and in particular grandparents, are at least partially to blame for raising a son or daughter who is unable to parent, kin are not viewed as negatively as welfare recipients.

While state welfare policies limit financial assistance to kin, state child welfare policies may also limit kins’ access to foster care payments even when they are caring for children who have been abused or neglected. Under certain circumstances, child welfare agencies help arrange for a relative to care for a child who has been abused or neglected, without taking that child into state custody. Because custody is not taken, the relative is not given the opportunity to become a licensed foster parent and receive foster care payments. Some states consider these “voluntary” placements to be good social work practice and seek as often as possible to place children with kin without transferring custody. While these families are relieved of some of the intrusion that child welfare agencies impose, the children in their care do not receive the financial support (as well as other child welfare services) that children brought into custody may receive.

In many states, when a child welfare agency does take custody of a child, relatives are asked to act as foster parents even if they are unable to meet licensing requirements. In most of these states, kins’ inability to meet licensing requirements denies them the opportunity to receive foster care payments. It seems ironic that kin who cannot meet licensing requirements, typically due to issues related to financial resources (e.g., income, adequacy of housing), receive less financial support than those kin and non-kin foster parents who do have adequate resources. It also appears to be discriminatory for child welfare agencies to provide less support on behalf of a child simply because that child is cared for by someone who cannot meet licensing requirements. The state’s level of responsibility for a child is not diminished (one could argue it is even greater) when the state chooses to place a child with an unlicensed kinship caregiver.

Because minority children represent the majority of children in kinship care, and the families caring for them are often poor, policies that disadvantage kinship caregivers have a disproportionate effect on the population of low-income minority children. By not providing sufficient benefits to kin caregivers, current policies may be inadvertently taking advantage of caregivers’ generosity and willingness to care for related children, with potentially negative impacts on the children in their care.

Jennifer Ehrle is a research associate with the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services and Population, where she specializes in research on abuse, neglect, the child welfare system and other policy issues related to the well-being of children and families. jehrle@ui.urban.org
 
Rob Green is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services and Population, specializing in child welfare and related child, youth and family issues. He is the editor and co-author of the recently released book Kinship Care: Making the Most of a Valuable Resource. rgeen@ui.urban.org
 
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