The Paradox of Kinship Care

The most valued but least resourced care option – a global study

Summary of a report written by Emily Delap and Gillian Mann of Child Frontiers and published in November 2019.

Definition and forms of kinship care

Kinship care may be defined as “Family-based care within the child’s extended family or with close friends of the family known to the child, whether formal or informal in nature.” (UN General Assembly (2010) Guidelines for the alternative care of children.) This broad definition encompasses multiple caregiving arrangements, and may involve:

  • Care by grandparents, aunts, uncles, adult siblings and other close relatives, or by distant relatives and friends of the family.
  • Varying degrees of parental contact and engagement in children’s upbringing.
  • Both informal agreements between family members, and more formalised placements involving the courts or social workers.
  • Stable, long-term relationships, or flexible, short term-measures that see children moving frequently between households.
  • Arrangements that are supported by the child and caregiver or enforced on them, either through coercion or the pressure of social norms.

The widespread and growing use of kinship care

Approximately one in ten children around the world live in kinship care. Rates vary greatly between and within regions.

The use of kinship care is consistently highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, where in some countries one in three children live in households with neither parent, with most of these children cared for by kin.

Rates are lowest in North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and some parts of Europe, though even in these settings large numbers of children are in kinship care. Informal kinship care is more common than formal, and children are more likely to be placed with grandparents than other relatives.

In countries such as the UK, Indonesia, and Rwanda, children are up to 20 times more likely to be placed in kinship care than other forms of alternative care. In many settings, the use of kinship care is increasing.

Explanations for trends in kinship care

The widespread and growing use of kinship care can be explained by seven interrelated factors:

  • poverty
  • lack of access to services
  • parental ill health and death
  • internal migration, emigration, and national immigration policies
  • disasters, conflict and instability (often linked to climate change)
  • cultural beliefs
  • the child protection policy response.
    The relative influence of these factors varies by context:
  • in high income countries kinship care is often caused by parental abuse and neglect, and in recent years has been widely promoted in child protection policies.
  • in lower income settings, kinship care is more commonly related to migration, lack of access to services, and poverty. Social norms affect the number of children in kinship care and children’s experiences in this care across all contexts.

The value of kinship care

Kinship care is often the preferred option for children who cannot live with parents as:

  • Children prefer it to other choices such as institutional or foster care, and many children in kinship care are loved and well cared for.
  • Kinship care offers continuity and stability for some children, and the opportunity to enhance important social networks for others.
  • Kinship care is undoubtedly a better alternative to harmful institutional care, and in high income contexts, research demonstrates better outcomes as compared to other forms of alternative care such as foster care. For example, children in kinship care have less or similar risks of abuse, neglect, and coming into contact with the law, and more stability of placements than foster care.
  • Children in kinship care can often maintain relationships with parents, especially in low- and middle-income countries.
  • Kinship care benefits caregivers, providing companionship, practical support and the satisfaction of helping a much-loved child to flourish.
  • Kinship care supports household livelihood strategies by enabling migration, and can save the state resources that would otherwise have to be spent on costly residential or foster care.

Support needs for safe and effective kinship care

Despite the value of kinship care, if it is poorly supported, both children and caregivers are highly vulnerable. Research suggests that support needs include:

  • Emotional support: Children often come into kinship care having experienced the trauma of separation from parents, or abuse, neglect and violence, and in many contexts, there are a disproportionate percentage of children with mental health problems in kinship care.
  • Poverty alleviation: Kinship care households are often poorer than average.
  • Education support, and access to other services: Children in kinship care frequently do less well in school than those in parental care. Children in kinship care with disabilities are likely to need particular assistance.
  • Protection from abuse, neglect, exploitation and discrimination: Whilst many children in kinship care are loved and well cared for, some are treated differently from others in the household, and are more vulnerable to early sexual debut, child marriage and child labour.
  • Managing relationships with parents: Relationships with parents are particularly fraught in high income contexts where kinship care is most usually caused by abuse, neglect or violence by parents.
  • Practical and emotional support for caregivers: Kinship caregivers can struggle with dramatic changes to their life plans, stress, or health problems, particularly if they are elderly.
  • Support to other children in the household: Kinship care also impacts on other children in the household, who may suffer from a loss of parental attention or resources and need support.

The vulnerability of children in kinship care is affected by factors such as: the degree of relatedness to caregivers, the nature and amount of contact with parents, the reasons for placement, and social norms around kinship care.

The neglect of kinship care

The value of kinship care is recognised in some international and national policies. However, these policies have not been put into practice. For example:

  • International campaigns on care have tended to focus on deinstitutionalisation, and pay only limited attention to the need to devote more resources to kinship care.
  • National governments often expect caregivers to care for children with no or minimal support.
  • There is a lack of research on kinship care and there are many gaps in understanding.


For national governments

  1. Conduct research on the scale, nature, causes and impacts of kinship care. This research should specifically seek to identify which groups of children in kinship care in a given context face the greatest risks.
  2. Alter national policies and interventions on alternative care so that they prioritise supporting safe and effective kinship care. Specifically:
    – Ensure that the end goal of care reform is that all children can grow up safe and protected in families, and that kinship care is always considered as the first option when children cannot be cared for by parents.
    – Offer a full package of support for children in kinship care and their caregivers that includes: psychosocial, financial, educational, and child protection services and support.
    – Ensure that high-risk cases are monitored and provided with more extensive support (but do not attempt to monitor all cases).
  3. Ensure that kinship care is considered in other relevant national policies and interventions. For example:
    – When determining national migration and immigration policies, ensure that the needs of migrants’ children, including those in kinship care, are recognised.
    – When defining childhood vulnerability or targeting social protection, recognise the particular vulnerability of children in kinship care, and their caregivers.
    – When designing parenting, nutrition or early childhood development programmes
    or support for children with disabilities recognise that often it is kin rather than parents that are the primary caregivers. Target interventions and messages appropriately.
    – Ensure that schools work with kinship caregivers as well as with parents, and recognise the particular challenges that children in kinship care face in gaining
    an education.
  4. Local civil society organisations (CSOs) are often the organisations that understand the situation best and have developed successful interventions. They should always be included in the development of legislation and policy development and implementation.

Recommendations for donors and UN agencies

  • Offer financial and technical support to enable national governments to appropriately support kinship care.
  • Expand global campaigning. Continue to support the deinstitutionalisation of children, but ensure that more resources are devoted to promoting the support of kinship care.
  • Fund research and knowledge exchange on kinship care.

Investing in local CSOs and their established practice with families and communities is often the most sustainable and contextually relevant response.

Low incomeMiddle incomeHigh income
Brazil Cambodia Colombia Ghana
Guatemala Guyana Indonesia Jamaica
Jordan Kenya Kyrgyz Republic Lebanon
Mexico Moldova Philippines Russia
South Africa Turkey Zimbabwe
New Zealand

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