Examining Financial Hardship and Caregiver Subgroups in Kinship Foster Placements: A Machine Learning Approach

Kinship care is the preferred placement option when it is determined that moving a child from their family’s home is necessary due to child abuse and/or neglect. However, notwithstanding kinship care being the preferred choice by families and child welfare professionals, the prohibitive costs associated with caring for a child can be particularly challenging . Programs such as the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program (KinGAP) are designed partly to mitigate this financial burden and serve as a permanency option for children, but there are limitations to who qualifies for KinGAP to receive payments for caregiving. For example, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) names several eligibility requirements for KinGAP, including requirements around the age of the child in care (i.e., 14 years old), license status of the home, and the amount of time the child must be in the licensed home of a caregiver . Because of the requirements of many existing programs, vast disparities remain in the financial assistance provided to kinship caregivers compared to non-relative foster parents. Indeed, decades of evidence highlight the significant number of unlicensed kinship caregivers who have lower incomes and limited access to resources and support, including financial assistance, potentially creating financial hardship as they engage in caregiving responsibilities.

The experience of financial hardship can significantly impact a child’s well-being, including their physical and mental health . The impact of financial hardship on the caregiver has also been considered previously , but less is known about the impact that financial hardship has on a caregiver’s current caregiving choices or plans to provide support to additional non-relative children as a licensed foster parent. One situation where the decision to support an additional child can arise is when considering placement for the sibling of a relative who is already living with a kinship caregiver. The benefits related to placing siblings together, including prevention of an additional loss and an increased sense of connection and fulfillment for each child , are substantial enough that states must attempt to keep siblings together when out-of-home placement is deemed necessary . However, the decision to take on multiple children has important financial implications, and it is crucial to understand the impact of these financial implications on caregiver capacities and intentions. Thus, this study addresses three questions: (a) How does the financial standing of kinship caregivers compare to individuals caring for another child in the general population in the United States? (b) What is the relationship between the number of children from DSS living with a kinship caregiver and the caregiver’s perceived financial capacity to care for the children? (c) What distinct subgroups can be identified based on how caregivers’ financial considerations inform their decisions to take care of relatives’ children? Findings from this study could highlight groups within kinship caregivers who could benefit from targeted financial support to help them continue serving or begin to serve as resources for some of our youngest, most vulnerable populations.

The State of Kinship Care

There are three types of kinship care: formal, in which the child lives with a relative, but the child is in the legal custody of the state; informal, in which a relative or fictive kin has taken on the role of guardian without legal involvement from the state; and diversion kinship care, in which a child protective agency assists in placing a child in a relative’s care . Over the years, kinship placements have grown continuously as the preferred placement option for children . Currently, over 2.5 million children in the United States are in some type of kinship foster arrangement . From 2011 to 2021, the number of children in formal or informal kinship care placements rose from 27% to 35%, and there are an estimated 100,000–300,000 children in diversion kinship care.

 Financial Hardship and Adverse Outcomes

Financial hardship, which often manifests as a lack of financial resources to cover the costs of essential items (e.g., housing, food, and transportation), constitutes a major stressor for many individuals and households. The family stress model (FSM), which has been considered previously when exploring the relationship between kinship caregivers, finances, and family outcomes, posits that financial hardship can have a negative impact on family relationships, thereby increasing the risk of family instability. 

Studies have reported several adverse effects of financial hardship on different members of the family system. Among adults, financial hardship has been found to contribute to caregiver depression, increased psychological distress, relational conflicts, decreased self-efficacy, increased aggression ,and reduced positive parenting techniques . The heightened stress experienced by caregivers facing financial hardship can affect their behaviors, parenting satisfaction, and, ultimately, their ability to engage in sensitive parenting. Preoccupation with addressing pressing family economic needs affects a caregiver’s ability to fully invest in the long-term social, health, and educational needs of a child in their care.

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