This is an archived article.

February 21, 2002

Informal caregivers: Most kids’ keepers are untrained, want more support

When they’re not with their parents, children spend more time in the care of neighbors, friends and other relatives than at formal child-care centers or licensed home providers, according to a major new UW study.


Researchers found that nearly a half-million Washington children through age 12 spend time each week in this less formal type of child care — known as Family, Friend and Neighbor (FFN) care. About 295,000 adults provide this care, a quarter of them for more than 30 hours a week.


Yet fewer than half of these non-licensed caregivers have the child-development and child-care skills training shown to improve children’s social, emotional and cognitive development, the study found. A majority say they face at least one caregiving problem, and two-thirds say training and support would help them do a better job.


Those were among the findings of a representative sample of almost 1,200 randomly drawn Washington state parents and nearly 300 caregivers.


The results suggest that tens of millions of American children spend significant portions of their formative years in Family, Friend and Neighbor care — and that many of those children could benefit if their caregivers were offered outside help. Assistance could range from child-development workshops, to a hotline for solving problems, to a play-kit library.


“This is a serious activity, with about 30 percent of these children in care enough hours a week for its quality to affect their development, ” said study co-author Richard Brandon, director of the Human Services Policy Center at the UW’s Daniel J. Evans School of Public Affairs. “A quarter of the caregivers work as many hours as a full time job; they face many challenges and they are asking for help.”


To gauge the extent and nature of this non-licensed care, the Washington Department of Social and Health Services commissioned the Human Services Policy Center to conduct the 18-month, $250,000 study. This followed a recommendation from the state’s Child Care Coordinating Committee of state agency personnel, parents and child care professionals.


The researchers found that Family, Friend and Neighbor care was the most prevalent form of non-parental care for kids under 13 in Washington state — constituting about two-thirds of all non-parental care hours for infants (ages 0-1), almost half for toddlers (1–2) and 61 percent for school-aged children (6–12). The exception was the 3–6 age group, which spent more hours in centers and licensed family child care homes.


Caregiving, the study found, is not a casual activity for the family, friends and neighbors who do it — they provide care for an average of 18 hours a week, and 40 percent get paid for it.


Nearly one in five is responsible for a child with special physical, emotional, behavioral or developmental needs.


For the study, Family, Friend and Neighbor care was defined to include any regular non-parental care other than a licensed center, program or family child-care home. FFN thus encompasses relatives, friends, neighbors and other adults, including nannies. The majority are grandparents (36 percent), other relatives (22 percent) and friends or neighbors (32 percent).


The study found that Family, Friend and Neighbor care provides better child-to-adult ratios (1.3 children per adult) than child-care centers (five children per adult) or formal child-care homes (three children per adult). This is part of its attraction, Brandon said. But parents chose Family, Friend and Neighbor care for many reasons, including familiarity with the caregiver, flexible hours, lower cost and a lack of affordable slots at local centers.


One third of the families receiving a state child-care subsidy have Family Friend and Neighbor care as their primary arrangement, the study found.


Although Family, Friend and Neighbor care is having a large-scale effect on America’s children, the researchers said, large-scale programs to support such caregivers have never been tried. Therefore, Brandon and his co-authors — lead researcher Erin Maher and senior researcher Sharon Doyle, both with the UW, and Battelle economist Jutta M. Joesch — recommend a pilot project to test different kinds of support. Opportunities would be tailored to different communities and could include a newsletter and tip sheets, caregiver meetings, child-development and parenting workshops, kits for activities and home safety, mobile resources and consultation.


A $300,000 fund to test these strategies in Seattle and King County was to be announced today by the Project Lift-Off Opportunity Fund, a public-private funding partnership for children. The money will allow six organizations to establish and strengthen programs for FFN caregivers.


The 130-page UW report offers an unprecedented, scientifically sampled picture of the characteristics, motivations and preparation of Family, Friend and Neighbor providers and the care they offer. The telephone interviews were conducted by the Social and Economic Research Center at Washington State University.


Among other key findings:





  • Parents often use a combination of licensed and FFN care.



  • Of the approximately 480,000 Washington children in the care of family, friends and neighbors on a regular basis, nearly a third are in such care more than 10 hours a week, and almost one in five more than 20 hours.



  • FFN caregivers are less affluent than the general Washington adult population, with a median household income of $30,000, compared to $42,000 for the state as a whole. They are also less educated, with a smaller percentage having college degrees.



  • Although 40 percent of FFN caregivers are paid, only 22 percent of parents using FFN caregivers pay for the service. The difference is because FFN providers care for an average of two children each, and a caregiver might receive payment for only one of the children. For parents who do pay, hourly rates for FFN care are roughly comparable to those of child-care centers and licensed family home care.



  • Roughly four out of 10 FFN caregivers have received child care-related education of some kind, but few have received the full combination of training in child-development, early-childhood-education and parenting skills that has been shown in other studies to improve children’s social and cognitive development.



  • Problems reported by FFN caregivers include not enough time for themselves (25 percent), long or irregular work hours (23 percent), not enough interaction with parents (16 percent), insufficient pay (15 percent) and dealing with children who are misbehaving (14 percent) or withdrawn (13 percent).

The Human Services Policy Center Web site is at www.hspc.org.