A new "Kids Count" report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation finds New Jersey is leading the nation when it comes to supporting kinship caregivers.

The Stepping Up for Kids: What Government and Communities Should Do to Support Kinship Families report found more than a third of children in Jersey's foster care system are living with relatives - which outpaces the national average of 26 percent.

The data shows an 18 percent increase in Jersey children living with relatives or close family friends because their parents can no longer care for them.

Ceil Zalkind, the Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, says there's been a federal requirement -that an effort be made to place children with relatives before they go into foster care- and in the past it was largely ignored, "but I think part of the child welfare reform going on at the Division of Youth and Family Services -we've seen enormous changes over the last 6 years…the state has made an intensive effort to make sure that before a child is placed in foster care - all potential relatives are explored as a placement for that child - I think that's very significant - that was a big problem in our state, and I think it's commendable that the state has made this commitment and followed through."

She says if relative agree to step in and take care of a child "they can be approved as a foster parent and receive financial assistance and services just like any other foster parent -that was an enormous barrier that prevented families from taking care of children…many kinship caregivers are grandparents, and they need financial assistance even if they don't live in senior housing, they may have an apartment that's too small - where they have to move in order to accommodate children."

Zalkind points out it's certainly better to be placed with a relative because "that relative is part of that child's extended family - whenever family relationships can be maintained it's critically important…and they maintain those relationships with the entire family, and perhaps with their parents long-term…foster care should be the last option for children who are the victims of child abuse and neglect and if there's a way to maintain those family relationships I think that's critically important…it's really nice to see New Jersey ahead of the rest of the country in acknowledging the importance of kinship relationships."