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The Economic Well-Being of Kin and Non-Kin Caregivers: Comparing Financial Resources, Payment Levels and Service Supports

Principle Investigators and Research Partners: 
  • Jill Duerr Berrick
  • Reiko Boyd
  • Wendy Wiegmann
Summary and Findings: 

Click here to read the full Executive Summary.

Overall, we find that the sample of kin and non-kin caregivers included in this study are more similar to one another than they are different with no differences in the characteristics of kin and non-in for a large majority of measures. This finding is in sharp contrast to dozens of other studies over the past two decades and may be related to the following:

  • It may indicate that the two selected counties for this study draw from a different general population than what is typical in other studies.

  • Adjustments in kin policy over the past two decades, including the narrowing of licensing standards for kin and non-kin, may have changed who is included among characteristics of kin.

  • The profile of conventional foster parents may be changing to bear greater similarities to kin, suggesting more vulnerabilities than what was found in the past and a decline in socio-demographic characteristics. We believe that the introduction of Resource Family Approval standards in California will continue the trend of making more similar kin and non-kin caregivers.

Overall, the two groups represent economically vulnerable caregivers. One-quarter of kin and non-kin had annual incomes below $25,000 – well below the poverty rate for a family of four (the average household size in this sample). Another one-third lived on household incomes between $25,000 - $50,000, well under the self-sufficiency index generally acknowledged for families living in the greater Bay Area. The stark differences in average monthly payment rates between kin and non-kin at Time I (approximately $200) are important as most kin were trying to raise their relative children below the sufficiency standards set by the federal government (Lino, 2013). At Time II we found that about half of the kin caregivers had seen their monthly subsidy rise following the implementation of the ARC. We anticipate that the average payment differences between kin and non-kin are likely to continue to diminish, though caregivers in non-ARC counties will continue to see significant payment differentials.

As recently as 2014, it was unknown what proportion of California kin caregivers were receiving foster care payments, what proportion were receiving TANF (non-needy caregiver), and what proportion were receiving nothing. Advocates highlighted the inequities in payment, but it was unclear whether these differentials were playing out for the majority or for a minority of kin. This study revealed larger-than-expected proportions of kin receiving foster care subsidies, but troubling findings regarding the proportion of kin reporting zero state support. Although a small number of caregivers indicated at Time II that they had rejected payments in order to protect their own children from child support obligations, the issue raises concerns that should be monitored – especially in non-ARC counties – as children should not be asked to bear the financial burden of these dramatic payment differentials. That some caregivers were under the impression that they could not obtain financial assistance because of their relationship to the child is also of concern; greater efforts to make all child welfare workers aware of the financial supports available to kin (in ARC and non-ARC counties) may be warranted.

In addition to the increasing similarities seen among kin and non-kin caregiver characteristics, and the now-diminishing differences in payment subsidies between the two groups, this study also revealed more similarities in service access and service needs than has been shown in previous studies. Although the nature of the services selected by kin and non-kin were somewhat different, with non-kin gravitating to training and kin electing support groups, we view these differences as important opportunities that child welfare agencies can take advantage of. Knowledge development can take place in the context of support groups, and the work of Zinn (2012) suggests that kin could benefit from greater access to information about positive parenting strategies. Similarly, important emotional support can occur in the context of training events. Efforts to make more alike training and support opportunities for kin and non-kin (though called by a different name) will tap into the needs of caregivers at the same time that agencies use these activities to improve the overall quality of out-of-home care.

The stated needs of caregivers, to receive greater financial remuneration for their challenging work, to partner with responsive social workers, and to gain access to more services for children, are common themes we see from decades of research on foster care (see, for example, Shlonsky & Berrick, 2001). Child welfare workers are often stretched due to their large work volume. Agency level efforts to support their partnership with kin and non-kin caregivers and to ensure the provision of accurate and timely information about financial supports, the child’s case, and service availability will likely have far-reaching effects in reducing caregiver stress and burden, and increasing the quality of care.

When children are taken into the custody of the state, the financial and service supports their caregivers receive should be relatively similar. Variability – if it exists – should be based on the needs of the child. In states across the country significant variation still exists between kin and non-kin, and between licensed and unlicensed kin. California has made great strides to level the playing field, ensuring that kin and non-kin are held to the same standards, that they are granted similar rights, and that they carry out the same responsibilities for dependent children. Gradually, California is also showing greater consistency in its policies and practices vis-à-vis kin, offering more similar services and supports. We see these trends as positive as they promote equality between similarly situated children. Our hope is that California will continue to show national leadership in these areas, encouraging other states to develop policies and practices that are consistent among caregivers of vulnerable children in care.