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States shift toward kin-first foster care

ROBBIE SEQUEIRA - When Victoria Gray and her husband took in their grandchild in 1993, there wasn’t a catchall term to explain the difficult task ahead. They just did the work.

In the past decade, though, Gray, of Phoenix, has watched as states have worked steadily to recognize the roles of grandparents and other extended loved ones, now known collectively as kinship caregivers, in raising children who otherwise might be in foster care.

“Over the years, I discovered that when the states use kinship care, they save a lot of money, and it becomes a bottom-line decision rather than a decision to help the families,” Gray said.

Some states now encourage social workers to look first toward kinship caregivers when placing children. Many pay small stipends to those caregivers or allow them to become licensed foster parents.

And later this year, Michigan will become the first state to take another, much-watched step toward making it easier for relatives to become foster parents. Under a new federal rule, the state will institute a separate, faster route for kinship caregivers to become licensed foster parents — streamlining paperwork and easing certain housing requirements — so they are recognized and paid for their work.

Licensing brings a higher monthly payment to caregivers, helping them cover the cost of the educational, social and medical needs of the children in their care. It’s the latest in a series of actions states have taken in recent years to legitimize extended relatives and even friends as official foster parents whose work deserves reimbursement.

Taking in a child who otherwise might go into the foster care system can be an unexpected financial and emotional undertaking for family members or close friends, advocates say.

“Grandparents and other relatives often step into this full-time caregiving role unexpectedly. Unlike nonrelative foster parents, who have months or years to prepare to take on a child, these kinship families take it often suddenly, sometimes in the span of a night’s notice,” said Jaia Peterson Lent, deputy executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit advocacy group.

“Many of these caregivers may be living on fixed incomes and sacrificing their retirements to meet the needs of their children,” Lent said.

Most kinship care arrangements are informal, as when a child goes to live with a relative or friend without official state acknowledgment. New Mexico, Mississippi, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arkansas have the highest number of children in kinship care placements nationally when those informal situations are included, according to 2021-2023 data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Research shows that when children have to be removed from their homes, prioritizing kinship care can improve academic, behavioral and mental health outcomes, and allow the child to stay within their culture and community, according to Child Trends, a research organization focused on child welfare.

In recent years, state legislatures — some frustrated with crowded foster care systems — have sent more resources and money toward kinship foster care. States such as Maryland and Wisconsin are expanding the pool of kinship foster care options to include more than just grandma and grandpa, and legally including people who have emotional connections with kids, such as family friends or coaches.

A new law in West Virginia adds a child’s former foster parents to the definition of “fictive kin,” which describes non-related but close family friends, as another kinship placement option. States such as Virginia are prioritizing kinship diversion to prevent kids from being shuttled around the foster care system — and as a way to save money that would otherwise have to be spent on nonrelative foster care placements, advocates say.

Missouri in 2020 made it easier for an adult relative to look after a child for up to 90 days without a formal foster care placement. The relative would need to get licensed for permanent placement.

More than 41 states allow kinship caregivers to take in a child even before becoming licensed, but many of those states do not give financial support until they are, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Just 13 states reported making unlicensed kinship caregivers eligible for foster care maintenance payments.

But in many states, even when kinship caregivers qualify for foster care payments, the amounts are much less than what nonrelative foster caregivers get, advocates told Stateline. The path toward greater financial assistance is through licensing, a process many lawmakers and advocates say includes arduous requirements that can disqualify relative caregivers from assistance.

You’re almost made to feel like you did something wrong to be in a situation where you raise your grandchildren.

– Pamela Meeker-Stolz

Pamela Meeker-Stolz experienced the problems when she took in her two grandchildren — a boy and a girl — who were, by law, not allowed to sleep in the same room, despite being related and having done so in their prior living situation.

“When you are a licensed foster parent, you’re treated very well. [The state] hands you resources, they hand you money, they give you classes, and the community at large thinks you’re an angel,” said Meeker-Stolz, a kinship caregiver who also works with the California-based advocacy group Alliance of Relative Caregivers.

“But if you take in your grandkids, there are no resources,” she said. “You’re almost made to feel like you did something wrong to be in a situation where you raise your grandchildren.”

Some of that is changing. A Colorado bill, passed by both chambers and awaiting action by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, would expand financial support to kinship care homes, even if they haven’t been certified by the state. Additionally, the bill clarifies that certified kinship homes would be eligible for the same financial assistance and reimbursement as nonrelative foster care homes.

A new Kentucky law, enacted in April, will allow kinship caregivers to change their designation to get more financial assistance, in addition to expanding the definition of kinship so that close family friends can also qualify as caregivers.

Republican state Rep. Julie Raque Adams, who authored the new Kentucky law, said that for “cash-poor” states such as hers, funding will be key to supporting the kin-first approach to foster care.

“We all know there’s a lot of [financial] pressure for caregivers,” she said. “I think that as we hopefully go down this path of making the kinship option more robust, it will include dollars for different kinds of approaches that could help families heal.”

‘It’s expensive to raise kids’

Thirty years ago when Gray took in her granddaughter — an infant who had a litany of health issues — she received a monthly stipend of less than $100 (about $200 in today’s dollars).

Years later, when she adopted her granddaughter’s half brother, a nonrelative, she was soon licensed in Arizona and received more than double the previous stipend in state assistance.

“Because I was the biological grandparent it was almost expected of me to take care of these children,” Gray said. “In our case, we also had our biological children, and we had to use our credit cards, our savings accounts, and tap into our 401(k) to maintain everything that needed to be done for our family of nine.”

Gray now operates a Phoenix nonprofit, GreyNickel Inc., that helps kinship caregivers navigate the hurdles she encountered. She said the goal is to fill an “information gap” that keeps caregivers from receiving assistance with housing and other needs.

That information gap can affect state officials too.

At the start of the year, Washington state’s kinship caregivers saw a massive rise in monthly foster care payments, with base payments starting at $722 to $860, based on the age of the child. Officials from the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families told Stateline that more than policy change, a “culture shift” among the staff to prioritize support for kinship caregivers has increased their kinship care placements.

“It’s expensive to raise kids and these kids are the responsibility of the state, collectively. We need to make sure that if we place a kid here, the caregivers can handle it,” said Ross Hunter, secretary at the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families. “Sometimes that involves removing these B.S. requirements that prevent families from receiving that assistance.”

Over the next few months, many will be watching Michigan as it becomes the first state, following the Salt River Pima Tribe of Arizona, to implement separate licensing requirements for kin caregivers hoping to access federal assistance, following a federal rule change by the Biden administration last fall.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has approved requests from Kansas, Nebraska, Nevada and North Dakota, as well as those from the North Carolina Eastern Band of Cherokee and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona.

In the official press statement announcing Michigan’s implementation of the rules, the department noted that federal regulations and licensing requirements made it harder for family members such as grandparents, aunts and uncles to become caregivers.

They include home and room size requirements, the size and location of bedrooms, financial standards of caregivers and, sometimes, the marital status of a caregiver, according to advocates and multiple federal agencies.

There ought to be flexibility in those rules, said Meeker-Stolz, especially as children deal with new family dynamics and the trauma of moving to a new place. “These situations aren’t black and white,” she said.

Some states have whittled away at the rules; Maryland, for example, has scaled back training requirements and background checks.

But some critics are wary. Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow focused on child welfare at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, told Stateline that training requirements and rules regulating how close the foster home can be to the birth parents are designed to protect kids who might be traumatized by the placement experience.

Additionally, Schaefer Riley said prioritizing kinship placements might discourage other, nonrelative foster parents who went through training but might have to wait longer for a child. She added that placing kids with relatives isn’t necessarily preferable, because there could be family issues keeping a child in a harmful environment.

“A lot of states say, ‘There’s a shortage of foster care, so let’s focus on kin,’ but that leads to a situation where we may no longer be recruiting qualified and willing foster care parents,” she said.

“Relatives are great, but they still need the training that those other foster care parents go through. Just because you happen to be related to them doesn’t mean you are equipped to handle the high needs of mental health and trauma that may follow in their later years.”


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