Jamesetta Drake had settled into her 40s, working as a cook and caring for one of her young grandsons. Then she received a call. Two other grandsons had been left home alone by their mother, Drake’s daughter, prompting Child Protective Services to get involved. At first, different family members offered to split the children, each taking one. But Drake stepped up.
“Being that they’re brothers, I wanted them to come up together,” Drake says. “I didn’t want to separate them.”
So 11 years ago, she became the legal guardian of all three. She had to quit her job. She then suffered a minor stroke. This wasn’t the easiest undertaking.
And yet data shows significant growth in the number of grandparents, aunts, uncles or family-friends filling the role of parent. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count report, released this summer, the number of children in so-called “kinship care” has doubled in the last decade, growing from around 31,000 between 1999-2001 to more than 63,000 between 2008-2010, representing about 6 percent of Kentucky kids.
This reflects a national trend. Kinship care rose by 18 percent over the last decade nationwide. It’s now estimated one in 11 children and one in five African-American children will live in kinship care at some point during their childhood. (This does not include extended families where parents double up with relatives.)
“It’s an issue that’s kind of popped up,” says Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates (KYA). “When I saw the numbers I was surprised by the growth.”
Brooks points out that kinship care has always been a reality in rural and urban areas, particularly among vulnerable families struggling with poverty, drugs or abuse.
Anecdotally, he cites the obvious factors behind the spike: unemployment, economic hardships, incarceration, military deployment, divorce, more single-parent households, substance abuse.
“To me, kinship care is the proverbial onion that has so many layers,” Brooks says. But he quickly adds that this kind of care poses multiple benefits. Most importantly, children can retain familial and cultural bonds, making the raw absence of parents slightly less jarring.
That’s one reason Drake has never doubted her decision to welcome three young grandchildren into her home.
“I’m from a big family. I’m the baby girl of nine. So it’s been a pleasure,” she says. “I’d rather have them with me than have them placed somewhere where they didn’t know where they were at.”
But for Drake and others like her, kinship care yields great challenges, both financial and emotional.
Less than 12 percent of kinship families receive monetary help from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, although nearly all are eligible, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Furthermore, less than half of low-income kinship care households sign up for the food stamp program.
Brooks says often grandparents or relatives aren’t familiar with the application process or may lack appropriate documentation verifying the relationship between caregiver and child.
Census data from the years 2009-2011 shows that in Kentucky, just over 630 children were placed in state-supervised kinship foster care. The overwhelming majority — 63,000 — winds up in kinship care through private, informal arrangements or through the child welfare system.
The way in which a child lands in a relative’s home determines how much financial assistance that family can receive. While a kinship foster family can receive nearly $700 a month for one child, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ kinship care program provides only $300 per month for one child. If for some reason a family doesn’t qualify for that kinship money, they may be eligible for TANF payments that can be as low as $186 for one child.
According to the nonprofit Community Coordinated Child Care, raising a child in Jefferson County can cost anywhere from $150-$600 a week.
“Sometimes it gets rough because certain times of the year, like school, getting all of them school clothes,” Drake says. “But I’m old-fashioned, so I plan early, put things on layaway, things like that, and it makes things easier for me.”
Currently, with Drake’s disability check and the assistance she receives for her three grandsons, the family lives on roughly $1,800 a month. It’s tight, but she says, “Some people’s situation is way worse than this.”
In a recent policy report titled “Stepping Up For Kids,” the Annie E. Casey Foundation states that kinship caregivers are more likely to be poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed, making the burden of childcare costs even heavier.
Terry Brooks, executive director of KYA, says politicians and advocates must find ways to better support these families.
“We, as well as lawmakers, have probably only now begun to scramble to think about how do we address the needs that the kids and families have,” he says.
According to Brooks, a coalition of children’s advocates from across the state plan on including kinship care in the 2013 Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children, an annual policy agenda used to push for change in Frankfort.
One way Brooks says Kentucky can help kinship families is by addressing the difficulty some caregivers face, particularly those in informal arrangements, when it comes to enrolling kids in school or accessing school records.
Most states have educational and medical consent laws that allow kinship providers the power to make educational and health decisions with a parent’s consent and without having to obtain legal custody. Kentucky lacks an educational consent law. Brooks says KYA often receives calls from grandparents frustrated by their inability to attend a special education meeting or enroll a child in school, despite acting as the sole provider.
(School districts vary in how strict they are. At Jefferson County Public Schools, if a relative does not have custody, the district requires a power of attorney document signed by the parent. But JCPS will always temporarily assign a child to a school if legal matters drag on and enrollment deadlines loom.)
LEO talked with several grandparents who have raised or are currently rearing grandkids. Many expressed the emotional toll this journey can take. One grandparent who unexpectedly took in a school-aged granddaughter said, “I had to work on the anger of all this. This is not where I thought I’d be.”
Twelve years ago, Sylvia Drane, a feisty woman in her 60s who raised two grandchildren, started a support group — The Granny Network — that meets in a Smoketown church monthly. Her grandchildren, now grown, suffered enormous behavioral issues and recurring health woes, from cavities to ear infections.
“I was catching the blues at all ends,” she says. “It’s almost like you have to deprogram them and program them again. It’s stressful.”
Compared to the general population, children in kinship care are more likely to have physical and mental disabilities.
“You just stop your whole life and it revolves around them. You have to start back cooking and washing and ironing,” Drane says. “You know, it’s a lot.”
When it comes to support programs for kinship providers, Brooks says there’s a “distinct lack.” Often word of mouth is how caregivers hear of help. Brooks doesn’t believe the kinship care trend will end anytime soon. He hopes lawmakers and the community respond: “I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for faith communities, nonprofits to see there’s a huge need out there.”