Kinship care is the full time care, nurturing, and protection of children by relatives, members of their tribes or clans, godparents, stepparents, or any adult who has a kinship bond with a child. This definition is designed to be inclusive and respectful of cultural values and ties of affection. It allows a child to grow into adulthood in a family environment.
Kinship Care has existed since the beginning of families. In history, the idea of relatives helping to care for children was common place when geography was not a barrier. Today, many cultures and families still utilize informal kinship care to care for children. Sometimes, it is only for short time periods, other times children move in with relatives permanently. The reasons for kinship care is as varied and diverse as families are but some of the reasons that children may live with relatives include:
- deployment of parents in the military
- parental mental/physical illness or substance abuse
- death of a parent
- poverty; the parent’s work requirements
- family violence, a relative’s concern for health, safety, and well-being of the child
Regardless of the reason that children move in with relatives, the number of kinship families is on the rise. In Michigan, between the 2000 and 2010 census, there was an increase of over 10,000 children living with relatives, with almost 9,000 living with grandparents. Overall, in 2010 there were 194,878 children under the age of 18 living in homes where the householders are grandparents or other relatives. This amounts to nearly 70,000 grandparents responsible for their grandchildren at that time. Nationwide there was a 13% increase in the number of children living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives between 2000 and 2010.
In Michigan, when children are not able to stay with their parents, the parents are asked to identify any fit and willing relatives who may be able to care for the children. The Michigan Department of Human Services and its contracted agencies prioritize placing children with relatives whenever possible. Relatives willing to act as a foster care placement for a child must pass an initial safety assessment and be willing to work with the child’s foster care workers to achieve permanency.
In recent years there has been increase in the number of children living with relatives rather than non-relative foster homes when their own parents are unable to care for them. While relatives have always been considered for placement, changes to state and federal laws and policies have prioritized the placement of children with relatives. Currently, about 36% of the foster care placements in Michigan are with relatives.
Research suggests that kinship care offers greater stability for children who are living with their relatives, but it reduces their chances of obtaining permanent legal status such as adoption and custody and guardianship. Federal legislation strongly encourages adoption as a viable permanency option for children in kinship care. Child welfare professionals should engage families in the decision-making process to establish an appropriate legal permanency plan. Adoption, however, may be an appropriate permanency option for some kin families.
Other forms of permanence such as legal guardianship may be an option for families to consider. Legal guardianship offers kin an opportunity to assume responsibility and authority of the child, without severing parental rights. Some states are considering standby guardianship as a means of assisting kin when parents are terminally ill or incapacitated.
Eight states are implementing subsidized guardianship through the U.S. Department of Human Services (DHHS) five-year waiver program. These states consist of California, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Montana, North Carolina, New Mexico and Oregon. These subsidized guardianships give the caregiver the opportunity to become the legal guardian of the child.
Planning for permanence for children should also include seeking appropriate support services for kin families. Kinship families are in need of support services such as: day care, respite care, support groups, physical and mental health services, educational services and legal assistance for kin caregivers. These services will support children while they remain in a safe and stable family setting.