April 01, 2011

Support for Kin Caregivers of Children Whose Parents Are Incarcerated

Council of State Governments Justice Center

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

The following material is drawn from an action plan designed to raise awareness of the needs of children of incarcerated parents and inform policies and practices. The action plan was developed by the Council of State Governments Justice Center, with support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and the Open Society Institute.

The Problem

A large percentage of children of incarcerated parents are cared for by the other parent or other relatives during parental incarceration; these caregivers face multiple challenges.

  • While most children with an incarcerated parent in state prison live with the other parent, more than one-fifth of children live with grandparents or other relatives1—who are considered kinship caregivers.2
  • According to a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 67 percent of incarcerated mothers reported having a child placed with a grandparent or other relatives.3 Nonparental caregivers face multiple challenges, such as enrolling children in school and obtaining government services for them.
  • About one-quarter of all children in foster care are living with relatives.4

Kinship caregivers encounter many difficulties, particularly when the child has an incarcerated parent.

  • On average, kinship caregivers are older,5 poorer,6 more likely to be single, and less educated than nonrelative caregivers.7
  • Kinship caregivers need assistance accessing a range of services and supports, for themselves and the children in their care. Common service needs include legal services, physical and mental health care, child care, housing, education, and financial services.8
  • Kinship caregivers of children with a parent in prison face a range of distinct challenges, including arranging transportation for prison visits, paying for collect calls from the incarcerated parent, helping children cope with the emotional trauma associated with parental incarceration, and confronting the stigma associated with a relative’s incarceration, especially when the caregiver is also the parent of the incarcerated individual.9

Despite the challenges, research suggests that kinship placement can result in better outcomes for children than non-kinship placements.

  • Kinship care provides an alternative to institutional and non-familial foster care. Children in kinship care generally experience greater stability than those in foster care.10
  • Research suggests that they experience fewer placement changes than children placed with foster parents with whom they are unrelated.11
  • Compared with children in nonfamilial foster care, children in kinship care have better attachments to their caregivers and fewer behavior and school problems.12
  • Children removed from their homes after reports of maltreatment have significantly fewer behavior problems three years after placement with relatives than children put into non-familial foster care.13
  • Children in foster care are more likely to live with their siblings if they are placed with  relatives.14

Promising Practices

There are a number of services and supports that can assist children of incarcerated parents and their kinship caregivers.

  • Kinship navigator programs are designed to provide these caregivers with referrals to needed services and information. In Washington State, for example, policymakers have expanded funding to support navigator programs, which help facilitate linkages with local resources such as caregiver support groups, training, and respite care.15
  • Financial assistance is available, including subsidized guardianship, one-time cash payments, and federal benefits such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to defray the costs of integrating a child into the caregiver’s home.16
  • Legal assistance can be accessed to help caregivers obtain the authority to make educational and medical decisions on behalf of the children in their care.
  • Resource or 211 directories, navigator systems, or libraries may provide listings of respite care, support groups, counseling, child care, and other services for caregivers.
    Several state and federal laws have been enacted to improve support for all kinship caregivers.
  • In Washington, Kentucky, New York, and Connecticut, lawmakers have appropriated funds for kinship navigator programs to assist kinship caregivers with service referral and support.17
  • As of 2008, school enrollment laws have been enacted in 30 states that allow kinship caregivers to enroll a child in school.18


1. Ensure adequate funding and effective implementation of the initiatives included in the Fostering Connections to Success law (see box above) and provide assistance to grantees to implement promising or evidence-based

2. Identify promising examples of kinship navigator programs and disseminate this information to the field.

3. Develop and implement mechanisms and effective practices for connecting relative caregivers who are not involved in the child welfare system with the community supports and services they need. Establish policies and fund programs that permit kinship care agencies to serve families that are not in the child welfare system.

4. Adopt model policies and practices concerning notification of relatives when a child enters foster care to assist with implementation.

5. Reevaluate arbitrary age limits placed on potential kinship caregivers; make case-by-case determinations and reconsider restrictions based on age alone.

6. Identify and expand housing opportunities for relative caregivers and their children, especially for senior caregivers who may live in senior public housing that does not permit children to live on the premises.

7. Implement a dissemination strategy to reach various caregivers and provide information about available resources, such as navigator systems, respite care, support groups, counseling, legal services, and child care. Employ various types of media, including public service announcements through radio and television, 211 information directories, Internet sites, and through partner service providers.

Reprinted with permission from Children of Incarcerated Parents: An Action Plan for Federal Policymakers, published by the Council of State Governments, Justice Center. View the full action plan at: www.justicecenter.csg.org


1. Glaze, Lauren E. and Laura M. Maruschak. Parents in Prison and Their Minor Children. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008. www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/pptmc.pdf.

2. Kinship caregivers are any relatives other than a child’s mother or father who provide care for children and include both relatives caring for children following a formal determination by the court and the child protective service agency, and relatives providing care without the involvement of child welfare.

3. Glaze and Maruschak, 2008.

4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS) Preliminary FY 2006 Estimates as of January 2008. <www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/stats_research/afcars/tar/report14.htm>

5. Macomber, Jennifer Ehrle, Rob Geen, and Regan Main. Kinship Foster Care: Custody, Hardships, and Services. Washington, DC: Urban Institute, 2003. <www.urban.org/url.cfm?ID=310893>

6. Ehrle, Jennifer and Rob Geen. "Kin and Non-kin Foster Care: Findings from a National Survey." Children and Youth Services Review 24(1–2), 2002, 15–35.

7. Ehrle, Jennifer, Rob Geen, and Rebecca Clark. "Children Cared for by Relatives: Who Are They and How Are They Faring?" New Federalism: National Survey of America’s Families., Washington, DC: The Urban Institute, 2001, B-28. <www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/anf_b28.pdf>

8. Casey Family Programs. Kinship Care. Seattle: Casey Family Programs, 2008. <www.casey.org/Resources/Publications/WhitePapers/WhitePaper_KinshipCare.htm>

9. Finney Hairston, Creasie. Kinship Care When Parents are Incarcerated: What We Know, What We Can Do. Baltimore: Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2009. <www.aecf.org/~/media/Pubs/Topics/Child%20Welfare%20Permanence/Foster%20Care/ KinshipCareWhenParentsAreIncarceratedWhatWeKn/10147801_ Kinship_Paper06a%203.pdf>

10. Conway, Tiffany and Rutledge Hutson. Is Kinship Care Good for Kids? Washington, DC: Center for Law and Social Policy, 2007. <www.clasp.org/publications/is_kinship_care_good.pdf>

11. Testa, Mark. "Kinship Care and Permanency." Journal of Social Service Research 28(1), 2001, 25–43. See also Chamberlain, Patricia et al. "Who Disrupts from Placement in Foster and Kinship Care?" Child Abuse and Neglect 30(4), 2006, 409–24.

12. Chapman, Mimi V., Ariana Wall, and Richard P. Barth. "Children’s Voices: The Perceptions of Children in Foster Care." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 74(3), 2004, 293–304; Benedict, M. I., S. Zuravin, and R. Y. S. Stallings. "Adult Functioning of Children versus Nonrelative Family Foster Homes." Child Welfare 75(5), 1996, 529–49.

13. Rubin, David et al. "Impact of Kinship Care on Behavioral Well-being for Children in Out-of-Home Care." Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 162(6), 2008, 550–56.

14. Shlonsky, Aron, Daniel Webster, and Barbara Needell. "The Ties that Bind: A
Cross-sectional Analysis of Siblings in Foster Care." Journal of Social Service Research 29(3), 2003, 27–52. See also Fred Wulczyn and Emily Zimmerman. "Sibling Placements in Longitudinal Perspective." Children and Youth Services Review 27(7), 2005, 741–63.

15. Casey Family Programs, 2008.

16. Generations United. Louisiana Subsidized Guardianship. Washington, DC: Generations United, 2005; United States Congress. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, P.L. 100-77 (1987). The McKinney-Vento Act treats children living with relatives who are not their parents as homeless and provides school supplies and uniforms for the children and food for the families.

17. Casey Family Programs, 2008.