A July 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report examines relative caregivers’ issues in Child Welfare and Aging Programs. The report drew on data from child welfare (AFCARS) as well as two Census Bureau surveys.  


The GAO found that in 2018 there were an estimated 2.7 million children that lived with kin caregivers— grandparents, other relatives, or close family friends with 139,000 of those in formal foster care. The report found 38 percent of children were living with non-grandparent relatives and close friends.  


The census data paints a large population that is shifting in some ways. In regard to race in 2005, 50 percent of caregivers were white, with 25 percent black and 18 percent Hispanic. By 2018 those numbers had shifted somewhat to 53 percent white, 19 percent black, and nearly 20 percent Hispanic. Age was also moving, with the average age at 55 in 2005 rising to 59 by 2018. It also points to the significant share of these caregivers who are not elderly, with one-third of grandparents under the age of 55. That can be significant since it may make some of these families ineligible for services through the Older Americans Act and other support programs for seniors. 


The report found that substance abuse and incarceration as significant reasons for these living arrangements with up to 19 percent of relative placements due to a mother’s substance abuse circumstance, 15 percent in the living arrangement due to a father’s incarceration, and 7 percent due to a mother’s incarceration. When the caregivers themselves were surveyed, it indicated an even bigger role for substance abuse. Relative caregivers said that alcohol or other drugs were a factor for 18 percent of mothers and 13 percent of fathers. Relatives surveyed said 7.3 percent of fathers were incarcerated while 14.7 percent of mothers were incarcerated. The different numbers were the result of the survey and the census data. Only 4.6 percent indicated that the child was in relative care due to child protective services (CPS) involvement by the mother while another 2 percent were being cared for due to the father’s CPs involvement.  


These relative families’ needs include access to legal services (such as advice and help on obtaining legal decision-making) access to specific child services such as child care, help in school enrollment, and several other issues that challenge families. One area was housing since some families have some obvious increased housing needs, or the change in status could raise housing arrangement issues that limit the presence of children. Families have limited options, and the report indicated that some of the federal barriers to helping families included the fact that many federal supports are either limited in funding or a state option. The Title IV-E subsidized guardianships state option under Title IV-E has been taken up by 33 states with an additional three states (Arkansas, North Carolina, and Oklahoma) having taken the option, but they were not serving families in 2019. In 2011 the national average for foster care maintenance payments for one child was $511 versus $249 per child under a TANF child-only grant. 


The report examined a number of support efforts, including kinship navigator programs. No navigator program has met the “supported” evidence-based standard under the Family First clearinghouse, but all states were given money in 2018 and 2019 to help implement a navigator program. Delaware, Idaho, Maine, and South Dakota did not draw these funds in 2018, and North Dakota did not in 2019. The report suggests states are being given guidance on how to use the funds to research the navigator programs in a way that would help meet the Family First clearinghouse standards. That is something that may be a challenge for a program that is largely a resource and referral service.


The GAO made suggestions to HHS regarding providing more technical assistance and outreach under both child welfare services and Aging Department Services. The Department indicated that they have done and continue to do that in their guidance and efforts.