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Different Types of Kinship Care

Children may come to live with their grandparents or other relatives in a number of ways, and only some of these ways involve the child welfare system. Kinship care arrangements fall roughly into three categories: (1) informal kinship care, (2) voluntary kinship care, and (3) formal kinship care.

(1) Informal kinship care, refers to arrangements made by the parents and other family members without any involvement from either the child welfare system or the juvenile court system. A parent may leave children with a grandparent while he or she is sent overseas, or an aunt may care for nephews whose parents are ill or otherwise unable to care for them. In this type of arrangement, the legal custody of the children remains with the parents, and the parents can legally take back the children at any time. The kin caregivers in these circumstances may have difficulty enrolling the children in school, obtaining health insurance, authorizing medical care, and obtaining some other benefits, because they do not have legal custody of the children. Generally, the only type of financial assistance available to kin caregivers in this type of arrangement is the child-only TANF benefit (see below under "Services").

Physical custody refers to where the child lives. If your grandchildren or niece and nephew live with you, you have physical custody of them. You may feed and clothe them, help them with their homework, and take care of them when they are sick.

Legal custody refers to the legal right to make decisions about the children, such as where they live. Parents have legal custody of their children unless they voluntarily give custody to someone else (e.g., the parent is sent overseas) or a court takes this right away and gives it to someone else. For instance, a court may give legal custody to a relative or to a child welfare agency. Whoever has legal custody can enroll the children in school, give permission for medical care, and give other legal consents.

The same person does not necessarily have both physical and legal custody. For instance, as a grandparent, you may have physical custody of your grandchildren because they live with you, but their mother or father may still have legal custody or the State agency may have legal custody.

(2) Voluntary kinship care refers to situations in which the children live with relatives and the child welfare system is involved, but the State does not take legal custody. In some cases, children have been placed with relatives by a court, and in other cases an arrangement is made by the child welfare agency with no court involvement.1 This type of kinship care covers a wide variety of circumstances and varies greatly from State to State. Some situations that might result in voluntary kinship care include:

  • Child welfare workers find signs of abuse or neglect by the parents, but the evidence is not serious enough to take the children into State legal custody; instead, the caseworkers, parents, and kin work out a voluntary kinship care arrangement where the children move in with the kin.
  • Under the guidance of child welfare workers, parents voluntarily place their children with relatives while they (the parents) receive treatment for substance abuse or mental illness.

Some jurisdictions will require the parents to sign a voluntary placement agreement with the child welfare agency when the children are placed with relatives. In many situations, the kinship care arrangement comes about because the parents understand that if they refuse to voluntarily place the children with kin, the child welfare agency will go to court and ask the judge to remove the children from the parents' care and award legal custody to the State.

In voluntary kinship care, the children are in the physical custody of the relatives but they may remain in the legal custody of the parents, or the parents may sign over temporary legal custody to the kin. Some States have consent forms that parents can sign to allow kin caregivers to have some temporary decision-making power regarding the children (for instance, to seek medical treatment or enroll the children in school).

(3) Formal Kinship care, refers to cases in which the children are placed in the legal custody of the State by a judge, and the child welfare system then places the children with grandparents or other kin. In these situations, the child welfare agency, acting on behalf of the State, has legal custody and must answer to the court, but the kin have physical custody. The child welfare agency, in collaboration with the family, makes the legal decisions about the children, including deciding where they live. The child welfare agency is also responsible for ensuring that the children receive medical care and attend school. If the court has approved visitation with parents, the child welfare system is responsible for making sure that the visits occur between parents and children. In formal kinship care, the child's relative caregivers have rights and responsibilities similar to those of nonrelative foster parents.

For more information about this terminology, see Malm and Geen's (2003) issue brief, "When Child Welfare Agencies Rely on Voluntary Kinship Placements" at

For a full discussion about this type of kinship care, see Ehrle, Geen, and Main's (2003) "Kinship Foster Care: Custody, Hardships, and Services" at


taken from Child Welfare Information Gateway

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