Older New Yorkers who care for relatives’ children outside of the formal foster care system are in “crisis,” according to a new report by the state chapter of the nation’s most prominent advocacy group for senior citizens.
Extended family members and kin caring for nearly 200,000 children statewide are facing acute emotional stress and financial burden, the AARP reported last month. While they provide the same daily caregiving as any parent, the vast majority do so without the stipends provided to foster and adoptive families – or the financial, legal and child care benefits available to low-income biological parents.
The grandparents, aunts, uncles and family friends – who are more likely to be people of color, low-income or disabled – can be compelled by child protective services to take children into their homes with no formal court oversight, arrangements at times prompted by social workers investigating an allegation of child abuse or neglect.
Rather than petitioning a court to formally remove the child from a parent’s custody, they sometimes offer parents the option of signing a “safety plan” that temporarily shifts the children to the care of kin. Such plans skirt the costs of a formal foster care placement and mean kinship families don’t have to stay in touch with child welfare workers. But they can leave low-income caregivers struggling to support the children with scant resources and limited access to social services.
“The many grandparents in our African American communities who are raising their grandchildren perform a labor of love, but it’s a hard, virtually full-time job,” said the president of the New York state’s NAACP chapter, Hazel Dukes. In a statement accompanying the AARP report, Duke’s legacy civil rights organization agreed that state agencies should not take for granted the time, energy and money that relatives invest in caring for young people who would otherwise be placed with strangers.
“It’s not right that the government too often overlooks these critical caregivers,” Dukes wrote.
Nationally, the average age of kinship caregivers is 59, meaning some are trying to balance childrearing with part-time or full-time work, while others have left the workforce and have to stretch retirement savings to support the unexpected costs of children.
The AARP report recommends New York make two key changes: First, the state should track children placed with kin through safety plans, and follow up regularly to offer assistance. Second, it should clarify the definition of “kinship caregiver” in state law, to provide easier access to the resources that biological, foster and adoptive parents typically receive.
AARP has been an occasional voice on these issues in the past, but the recent report comes at a time of both historic crisis and opportunity. Numerous studies have shown that children living with relatives fare better than those placed with strangers, experiencing greater stability and fewer behavioral and mental health problems.
Many states have made it a priority to place children with kin caregivers whenever possible; in New York, state data shows 42% of foster children are currently in a relative’s home, up from 29% in early 2017.
More than half of New York kids who live with kin have been the subject of a prior child abuse or neglect investigation, according to a 2010 survey of more than 3,000 children conducted by researchers at the University of Albany. But only a tiny fraction of children – just 4% – are formally placed through the foster care system.
Guiding kin caregivers into informal arrangements saves child welfare agencies significant time and money, keeping caseloads down and avoiding the cost of regular foster care stipends.
But some extended family households need additional support and oversight, the AARP report argues. The organization representing seniors calls for “regulations that include data collection, time limitations on arrangements, and administrative reviews of cases, with the child welfare agency conducting extensive follow-up with parents, children, and kinship caregivers to ensure permanency is achieved.”
New York does not clearly define who counts as a kinship caregiver – rather, current law refers variously to “relatives,” “suitable others” and “prospective relative guardians.” Defining “kinship caregiver” in state law would improve recognition and services for these families, according to the AARP.
A bill now before the state Legislature has a similar aim. Under the proposed legislation, the state’s “abundant” use of kinship care “warrants defining the term in order to avoid confusion and facilitate common usage of the term in determining eligibility for supports across many systems.”
Those supports are sorely needed, according to data in the AARP report. Prior to the pandemic, 21% of New York’s grandparent caregivers had incomes below the poverty line, and the prolonged school closures and job losses of the last year have made it even more difficult to balance caregiving with paid work – even as grocery, utility and technology bills soared with children at home full-time. To address these needs, the AARP recommends giving kinship caregivers priority for child care subsidies, affordable housing and legal services.
Currently, many kin caregivers don’t know they are eligible for financial support, or they can barely survive on the benefits they do receive, such as “child-only” welfare grants of about $400 per month, plus $100 for each additional child. Just 15% of eligible kin caregivers now receive this funding, the AARP found. The advocacy group is urging New York to double that rate and to better promote the availability of the grants through public information campaigns and social worker referrals.
Such reforms would have particular impact for Black children, who make up 25% of the children living with relatives nationwide, despite comprising just 14% of children, according to 2018 census data. Caring for children in the community is “just what we do,” said Elvira Northington, who is raising her young granddaughter and has spent 18 years leading a support group for foster, adoptive and kinship parents in Buffalo.
“The children know they're with family, even if it's not their biological mom or dad,” said Northington, who has also taken in children from her neighborhood and church over the years. “Being within their community and with people that understand them gives them a sense of belonging.”
Beth Finkel, the state director for the New York state AARP, said the issues raised in the report are vital to the grandmothers she’s met over the years in support groups for kin caregivers.
“They talk about their struggles and how much they love their grandchildren and want to do right by them,” she said.
“Who else would you want children to be with, if not the people that love and respect and are devoted to them? They're doing a service to all of society, but we haven’t made the firm commitment to support them.”