Kinship care is more than just a term; it’s a lifeline for kids who can’t be with their parents for one reason or another. It means family stepping up—grandparents, aunts, uncles, or even close family friends—and taking on the role of mom and dad.
In this article, we’re diving deep into what kinship care is and how to make it work. From the heartwarming stories of those who’ve been there to the nuts and bolts of making it work, we’ve got you covered on all things kinship care.
About Kinship Care
Sometimes parents are struggling with addiction, housing instability, mental health concerns, domestic violence, incarceration, or other circumstances that require their children to be under the responsibility of someone else. When this other person is a family member or close friend, it can be referred to as “kinship care.”
Of course, the decision to place children in someone else’s home is significant and life-changing, so let’s look deeper at what this involves.
What is Kinship Care?
Kinship care is when a child is raised by relatives or close family friends instead of their parents, ensuring they stay in a loving and familiar environment.
This can involve formal state government involvement through Child Protective Services or it can be an informal agreement between family members in the hopes of preventing state involvement.
“Kinship care probably saved my life,” said Amber.* When her house burned down and her family had nowhere to go, her dad temporarily gave guardianship to Amber’s aunt in another state. While there, Amber disclosed abuse by a friend of the family and a formal CPS investigation was launched. Amber’s dad was able to receive housing and case management support through the state. He welcomed Amber back into his home three months later, and they began attending individual and family therapy sessions to start on the journey to healing.
What does Kinship Care involve?
Kinship care can include:
- The caregiver ensures the child is covered by their insurance or state insurance when the state has custody.
- The caregiver is responsible for enrolling the child in school.
- The caregiver schedules medical and dental check-ups for the child.
- The caregiver secures mental health support for the child.
- The caregiver provides the child with basic needs like food, clothing, and a safe home.
- The caregiver may need to supervise visits between the child and their parents.
- The caregiver may need to attend court dates for or with the child.
Essentially, the caregiver takes on all of the responsibilities of a parent, and then some additional ones when it comes to things like facilitating or supervising contact between parent and child. Some kinship caregivers receive compensation through their state or locality government, while others might have an agreement with the parents regarding finances. Many others receive no financial support at all.
These situations usually happen on an emergency basis, so planning might not be an option. Keep reading to get an idea of everything you need to consider if you are in this situation.
Financial Support for Kinship Caregivers
The fastest way to get financial support for kinship caregivers is to contact the Department of Social Services. This agency may be known as Child Protective Services (CPS), Department of Child Safety (DCS), Department of Child and Family Services (DCFS) or some other variety of these titles.
Try doing a Google search for “social services” with your state or county name. Once you are in contact with someone, ask about the following:
- TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families)
- Community-based behavioral health services available
- SSI/SSDI (if the child receives it or is entitled to it)
It is also important to discuss foster home licensure. In some states, a kinship family cannot receive financial assistance unless they are an approved foster home, which typically requires background checks, home studies, and formal training.
The question to ask the social services representatives is: “What would it take for me and my kinship care child to qualify for this assistance?”
Be sure to have any and all relevant documentation you can find, such as:
- Birth certificates
- School records
- Social Security numbers
- Pertinent medical information, including:
- Shot records
- Any documentation from parents giving you custody or guardianship
- Any court orders related to the child
Navigating the logistical aspects of kinship care involves more than just providing a loving home. It’s about ensuring the child’s daily needs are met, from a safe place to sleep to the essential items that support their well-being. This section outlines the practical steps and resources available to kinship caregivers to help manage these responsibilities effectively.
Most social service agencies will have requirements around sleeping arrangements in homes with kinship placements. If possible, ensure there is a separate sleeping area for the child, or that they share a bedroom with someone of the same gender and close to the same age. If this is not possible, consider makeshift dividers to create a distinct space. Try to avoid having the child sleeping in a common area for more than a few nights.
Kinship caregivers may need to provide a variety of items. Depending on the age of the child, you may need:
- Car seat
- Hygiene items
- Medication (if the child is on prescriptions)
- Food (including specific dietary needs)
Local nonprofits may support you with obtaining these items. For example, Kids Kin N Caregivers in Hampton Roads, Virginia, such as this one in the Hampton Roads, VA area provides educational workshops, enrichment activities, intensive family support and help connecting with community resources that can provide for your needs.
The Grandfamilies and Kinship Support Network has programs to support kinship caregivers as well. Thei programs can help you connect with information and referrals, bolster your emotional support, and help you find assistance with clothing and other needs. Find your local Kinship Navigator program (or other helpful services) on the GKS Network website.
A search for “kinship caregiver nonprofit support” with your city, state or county name should bring similar results. You can also call 211 for additional resources that may be able to help.
It can also be helpful to tap into local social media, such as Facebook groups, and share a little information about the situation and what you need for the child. Community members may have things to give you or may connect you with churches and other organizations that are able to support.
Medical & Medications
Obtaining medications may require health insurance support, either from the child’s current provider or another provider. If there are prescription medications, or any other immediate medical needs for the child, be sure to mention this when calling social services.
You may need to obtain their medical records. You may need to establish the child with new medical providers.
Other Logistical Concerns
You will likely need the child’s birth certificate and immunization records for school enrollment, as well as proof of residency. You may need to provide transportation to and from their school of origin while they are waiting to be enrolled in your local school.
Legal Rights & Responsibilities
If the situation is amicable, the kinship caregiver and biological parents can file custody paperwork together at the local courthouse.
Be sure that the kinship caregiver has the right to:
- Enroll the child in school and make school-related decisions
- Carry the child on health insurance and make medical decisions
- Determine who can and cannot have contact with the child (or what limits are placed around contact)
- Enroll the child in mental health services
- Receive benefits on behalf of the child
- Claim the child on taxes (if applicable)
You may need to add the child to your lease or your health insurance (or other benefits). Be sure to contact those organizations to see if you need to adjust anything and what documentation would be required to do so.
Emotional Support for Kinship Care Families
It is more often that these situations are complex and involve a multitude of feelings.
If you are a kinship caregiver, remember that very few parents envision not being able to care for their children. For nearly all parents in this situation, there will be many complex emotions, even if you do not see them grieving or appearing sad.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Do not speak badly of the child’s family members in front of them. If the child wants to talk to you or vent to you, validate their feelings but remain neutral.
- If the child discloses any abuse or neglect to you, contact your local Child Protective Services immediately. Do not ask the child too many questions–just what happened, by who, when, and where.
- Enroll the child in mental health support services as soon as possible.
- Consider enrolling yourself in mental health support services as well. This is a major life change and you may have some complicated feelings, too.
- Consider finding support groups in your area with families in similar situations.
- Ensure you understand the parameters around contact with other family members. It may be determined that it needs to be supervised. If so, carefully consider if you are comfortable supervising or would like a third party to do so.
- Connect with the child’s school, and ask about the McKenney-Vento program, which works with homeless students but can sometimes offer support to students in transition between homes.
“My mom took custody of my son when I couldn’t take care of myself,” says Lucy. “I was so angry with her at the time, but it didn’t take long before I realized that it was for the best. I don’t know where we would be if she hadn’t stepped in.”
Other Resources & Tips
Try to minimize change as much as possible. Encourage them to remain in contact with friends and supports. Support them in staying on the same sports teams or going to the same extracurricular activities. Consider allowing them to stay at the same school until the end of the school year. Try having some of the foods they love. Let them keep the clothes they like.
If you are comfortable, it can be helpful to speak to your employer, close friends, even some acquaintances you frequently have contact with, about what is going on. Your life may change a lot, and you will find support in some unlikely places!
Kinship care is an admirable thing to do–and it can be confusing, emotional, scary, rewarding, and more. Follow the items listed above and you will be able to keep things as simple as possible.
As you reach the end of this journey through the essentials of kinship care, you’re now equipped with the knowledge and resources to provide a loving, stable environment for a child in need. Through personal stories and practical tips, we’ve shared the keys to navigating the complexities of legal, financial, and emotional support. Remember that kinship care is a remarkable and difficult journey but there is help available to you.