In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Kinship Care

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Specialized Organizations

Social Work Kinship Care
Ramona Denby-Brinson, Hanna Haran, Amanda Klein-Cox
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0310


A relative caregiver (commonly called a kinship caregiver) is rearing about 10 percent of children in the United States. While relative caregivers are typically a child’s grandparent, they can also be other relatives (e.g., aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins) or fictive kin (e.g., godparents). The most prevalent care arrangement is classified as informal, denoting an agreement voluntarily brokered between a child’s parent and relative caregivers. However, more commonly discussed in the literature is formal care, where a public child welfare entity has intervened in establishing safeguards for a child, resulting in court action that designates a child a ward of the state and authorizes placement with a relative caregiver. This dichotomous classification involves more nuanced typologies when considering the voluntary versus involuntary nature of agreements and the public versus private auspices under which they fall. For example, a child could be in an informal, private kinship care arrangement brokered by a public child welfare entity. Such distinctions are important not just for classification but because they are often associated with differential levels of support, financial provisions, public oversight, and outcomes (e.g., child well-being, permanency). While typologies vary, there are common reasons why children come to be reared by relatives, including child maltreatment, parental incarceration, physical or mental illness, addiction, death, or abandonment. For children removed from parental care for maltreatment, placement with kin tends to be preferred for most public child welfare agencies. Demographically, Black and Native children are most likely to be reared by kin. Caregivers tend to be women, unmarried, of color, and economically disadvantaged, with an average age of fifty. Kinship caregiver experiences differ, but most report satisfaction with the role and a sense of self-efficacy from ensuring that their relative’s child is safe, nurtured, feels loved, and remains connected to family. Although kinship care is considered a protective factor because children experience more favorable outcomes (e.g., stability) than their counterparts do, many caregivers report being under resourced and experiencing high stress levels. Likewise, many kinship caregivers lack knowledge and direction about legal issues, resources, and pathways to support. Safeguarding children and promoting their well-being is of paramount interest to those involved in kinship care. More recent research and state and federal laws recognize that to advance child well-being, financial provisions, services, and supports must be in place for children and caregivers. Despite significant gains in the past twenty years, the literature, well-supported programs and interventions, and policy related to kinship care remains inchoate.

Introductory Works

Prior to the formalization of the child welfare system in the United States, informal kinship care was the primary placement for children whose parents were unable to participate in childrearing. The use of informal kinship care has been documented across cultures and between racial and ethnic groups. Hegar and Scannapieco 1995 provide a summary of the different historical contexts that created the need for kinship care among various racial groups and their experiences with the development of the formal child welfare system beginning in the late 1800s. To further understand the history of the child welfare system, Myers 2008 provides a broad historical overview. Danzy and Jackson 1997 gives a detailed history of kinship care in the African American community, which has disproportionately engaged in nonparental childrearing practices when compared to other racial groups. The theoretical underpinnings for placing children with kinship caregivers can be found in Kang 2007 and Hong, et al. 2011, whose authors discuss ecological systems theory, attachment theory, and social capital theory to address how kinship care can act as a protective factor in children’s developmental outcomes.

  • Danzy, J., and S. M. Jackson. 1997. Family preservation and support services: A missed opportunity for kinship care. In Serving African American children. Edited by S. M. Jackson and S. Brissett-Chapman, 31–44. New York: Routledge.

    This paper discusses the use of kinship care by the African American community as well as the lack of integration of kinship care into family preservation services by child welfare practitioners throughout the United States.

  • Hegar, R., and M. Scannapieco. 1995. From family duty to family policy: The evolution of kinship care. Child Welfare 74.1:200.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781351315920-11

    This article provides a history of kinship care up through the 1990s. Additionally, the text looks at the historical reasons that different racial and ethnic groups have engaged in informal kinship care.

  • Hong, J. S., C. L. Algood, Y. L. Chiu, and S. A. P. Lee. 2011. An ecological understanding of kinship foster care in the United States. Journal of Child and Family Studies 20.6: 863–872.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10826-011-9454-3

    Using the ecological systems theory and attachment theory, this paper examines the myriad of factors that contribute to children’s developmental outcomes and why ecological systems theory encompasses the complexities of nurturing children.

  • Kang, H. 2007. Theoretical perspectives for child welfare practice on kinship foster care families. Families in Society 88.4: 575–582.

    DOI: 10.1606/1044-3894.3680

    This paper explores social capital theory as a main theoretical underpinning of placing children with kin, as well as the protective factors associated with kinship placements.

  • Myers, J. E. 2008. A short history of child protection in America. Family Law Quarterly 42.3: 449–463.

    This work discusses the history of the modern child welfare system, including the development of federal agencies whose role was to advocate on behalf of children and their families. This history can be used to understand the role kinship care played prior to government involvement.

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