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Kinship Foster Care

Custody, Hardships, and Services

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Document date: November 20, 2003
Released online: November 20, 2003

No. 14 in Series, "Snapshots of America's Families III"

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

An abused or neglected child enters kinship foster care when a child welfare agency places the child with a relative and a court makes that relative responsible for the child's care. Data from the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF) indicate that 405,000 children lived in kinship foster care in 2002.1 While kinship foster care offers children family support, the relatives they live with are frequently poor and face hardships themselves, and children in kinship foster care often do not receive important protections and services.


How Many Children Are in Kinship Foster Care?

In contrast to the 2002 NSAF estimate of 405,000 children in kinship foster care, the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS), the federal system for collecting data from states on the number of children in foster care, estimates that approximately 131,000 children lived in kinship foster care in September 2001. The federal estimate counts only those children who are also in the custody of the state, while the NSAF estimate includes all children for whom a court has made a relative responsible (figure 1).2

In many states, the child welfare agency may, under certain circumstances, help arrange for a relative to care for a child without involving the court. Relatives may agree to care for children before a court becomes involved to avoid further entanglement with the child welfare system or having custody of the child taken from the parent. When these children are included, the NSAF estimate of the kinship foster care population rises to 542,000 children in 2002.

Hardships and Services

Children in kinship foster care face substantial hardships—even greater than the hardships of children in foster care with nonrelatives. Children in court-involved kinship foster care are more than twice as likely as children living with non-kin foster parents to live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty thresholds (50.2 percent versus 23.8 percent, as shown in figure 2). They are also more than twice as likely to live with a single caregiver (55.1 percent versus 27.3 percent). Differences in the shares of children who live with older or less-educated caregivers are not statistically significant.

Child welfare policies and services are generally directed to children in state custody. Yet, as the difference between the NSAF and AFCARS estimates show, most children in kinship foster care are not in state custody. Only children in state custody are eligible for federally reimbursed foster care payments. Moreover, child welfare agencies only have to oversee cases of children in state custody. For example, in cases where the court is involved but the state does not take custody, the kin caregiver is not required to become a licensed foster parent. This situation could jeopardize the child's safety if living conditions are not assessed carefully. Similarly, children who are not in state custody typically do not receive permanency planning services to help reunite them with their parents or find them an adoptive home. Finally, children placed by the child welfare agency without court involvement often are not monitored as frequently, which could also jeopardize their safety.


Many abused and neglected children today are placed with relatives rather than in traditional non-kin foster homes. Experts believe there are substantial benefits to placing children separated from their parents with relatives rather than with unrelated foster parents. Relatives can provide family support and frequent contact with birth parents and siblings (Chipungu et al. 1998; Dubowitz et al. 1994). In fact, relatives are the preferred placement option of child welfare agencies, and placements with relatives have become more common than non-kin foster placements in many states.

Kinship foster families, however, often face hardships that can make caring for abused or neglected children difficult. Fewer than half the children in kinship foster care are in state custody, to which receipt of foster care payments and further monitoring by the child welfare agency are generally tied. Many children in kinship foster care, therefore, may not be receiving the services needed to ensure the safety of their placements.


Figure 1. Abused and Neglected Children Living with Relatives

Figure 2. Demographic Hardships Faced by Children in Kinship and Non-Kin Foster Care


Chipungu, Sandra, Joyce Everett, Mary Jeanne Verdieck, and Hudith Jones. 1998. Children Placed in Foster Care with Relatives: A Multi–State Study. Washington, D.C.: Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Children, Youth, and Families.

Dubowitz, Howard, Susan Feigelman, Donna Harrington, Raymond Starr, Susan Zuravin, and Richard Sawyer. 1994. "Children in Kinship Care: How Do They Fare?" Children and Youth Services Review 16(1–2): 85–106.


The authors are extremely appreciative of the comments provided by Matthew Stagner, Ken Finegold, and Alan Weil and the programming support from Katherine Kortenkamp, Jason Ost, and Jane Reardon-Anderson.


1 The 1997 NSAF estimated that 195,000 children were in kinship foster care; the definition in that survey included children for whom a relative identified himself or herself as a foster parent. Since 1997, states have made substantial changes in how they use relatives as caregivers and whether they license kin as foster parents. The 2002 NSAF definition of kinship foster care, adopted in response to those changes, specified court involvement in the placement rather than relatives' identification of themselves as foster parents. The 1999 NSAF did not ask relative caregivers about court involvement or whether they identified themselves as foster parents, so a kinship foster care population was not identified in that survey year.

2 AFCARS may not account for all children in state custody living with kin because of differences in states' definitions. The 131,000 may be an undercount. A more accurate estimate might be closer to the 1997 NSAF estimate of 195,000 children with relative caregivers who identified themselves as foster parents.

Jennifer Ehrle is a research associate, Rob Geen is a senior research associate, and Regan Main is a research assistant in the Population Studies Center of the Urban Institute.

About the Series

Snapshots III presents findings from the 1997, 1999, and 2002 rounds of the National Survey of America's Families (NSAF). Information on more than 100,000 people was gathered from approximately 40,000 representative households in each round. The NSAF is part of the Assessing the New Federalism project (ANF). Information on ANF and the NSAF can be obtained at http://www.urban.org/anf.

The Assessing the New Federalism project is currently supported by The Annie E. Casey Foundation, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, The Ford Foundation, and The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

Alan Weil is the director of Assessing the New Federalism. Kenneth Finegold is the editor of Snapshots III. Design is by Bremmer & Goris Communications.

Topics/Tags: | Children and Youth | Families and Parenting

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