Natasha King thought it would be temporary, just a few months.
When the state called in 2013 and asked if she could parent her two grandchildren, she didn’t hesitate to take in the kids she loved more than anything in the world. Their mother’s drug problems had gone from bad to worse, and their father had addiction issues of his own.
King, a 46-year-old nursing assistant in Lexington, Kentucky, is still the primary caretaker of her grandchildren, now 12 and 13 years old. Although she had been working two jobs to support her family, she had to quit one during the pandemic to guide the kids through online learning.
King receives just $225 each month in public aid through the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or KTAP.
She could be receiving more. There used to be a state program for grandparents and other relatives who are raising children that have suffered abuse and neglect. Participation in this program would nearly triple the support King receives.
But that program was closed to new families in early 2013, just months before King took in her grandchildren. In 2019, pressured by a federal court decision, Kentucky started paying some relative caregivers under a new program. But the new program wasn’t retroactive. King’s application was rejected.
“It’s been scary,” said King, who’s worked 12-hour shifts at the hospital since recovering from a bout with COVID-19. “I have guardianship. I make their decisions. I basically just don’t get any benefits for them.”
Kentucky is an epicenter of America’s “hidden foster care” system, a gray area in which caregivers shoulder the many burdens of parenting with few of the supports afforded to licensed foster parents. The phrase, coined in a recent legal journal by University of South Carolina professor Josh Gupta-Kagan, describes any instance where child protection agencies shift the physical custody of children without relying on a court-sanctioned removal into foster care.
From the perspective of the state, kinship care is a win-win: research shows that children tend to do better in the homes of people they know than with strangers. And while licensed foster parents can receive north of $1,000 per month for the most high-needs children, relative caregivers are inexpensive: informal placements with kin yield little or even no financial support.
For kinship caregivers, the status quo is fraught with problems the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated. Many feel intense social isolation and a lack of support from the state’s dizzying patchwork of social services. They’re also aggrieved that children must spend time in state custody for their relatives to qualify for some public benefits, a quirk that feels cruel and perverse to those already sacrificing.
Since most kinship caregivers in Kentucky are grandparents, kinship care often involves cutting into retirement savings or Social Security benefits. Some relative caregivers are mired in poverty. Others are mulling bankruptcy.
The situation is most dire for caregivers like King who took in children between 2013 and 2019, when one program was closed and another was opened only to families whose children were in state custody. Stuck in this gap, some kinship caregivers feel they’ve been all but abandoned.
Kentucky’s ever-shifting landscape of support for relatives is confusing to caregivers and even to child welfare professionals. Relatives who call the state’s kinship support hotline say they often receive different answers depending on who picks up the phone.
“It’s crazy the amount of misinformation floating around Kentucky,” said Shannon Moody, senior policy director at Kentucky Youth Advocates, a Louisville-based nonprofit. “Workers don’t even know sometimes what the new program is called, or what’s available to relatives.”
Coronavirus Stresses Kentucky Caregivers
A growing body of research suggests that children placed with kin experience more stability and fewer behavioral challenges than those living with non-relatives. These children are also less likely to be removed from their homes again once they return.
In the early 2010s, the number of children in the Kinship Care Program peaked around 11,700. The number suggests far more Kentucky children were in hidden foster care than were in the official placements tracked by federal data.
One of every 13 children in Kentucky is being raised by a relative who isn’t their biological parent, according to estimates from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. That rate of kinship care is one of the highest in the U.S., totaling some 77,000 children.
Since last year, the coronavirus pandemic has strained these kinship caregivers. Surveys conducted in August by Kentucky Youth Advocates found that a majority needed more financial support than before the pandemic, while four in 10 needed more emotional support.
Older kinship caregivers are also more susceptible to serious complications from the coronavirus. That poses a risk to the children who may not have other relatives to rely on in a crisis.
“I’m the only one these kids got. I got to keep myself together,” said Patty McClanahan, a 64-year-old grandmother raising six grandchildren on her own in Richmond.
Some caregivers want to stay at home to stay safe from COVID-19 and watch the children, many of whom are still participating in school online. But they need to work and find child care, which is both expensive and a coronavirus risk.
If she gets sick, McClanahan worries her grandchildren would end up in the sort of legal trouble that has tripped up so many others in her community. “Everything I’ve done to keep them out of the system would be in vain,” she said. “That’s a big worry. I think about that all the time.”
Confusing Requirements, Inadequate Pay
Anne Polston and her husband took in their eldest grandchild more than a decade ago. They were offered payments under the Kinship Care Program. But, at the time, the family declined — they didn’t think they’d need the help.
“Because I was only taking one child, and I was working, I said if I couldn’t care for them on my own, we shouldn’t take them in,” said Polston, who lives in Casey County.
Back then, Kentucky’s offer for caregivers like Polston — the Kinship Care Program, which provided $300 per child, per month — was well below the monthly rate the state offered to its licensed foster parents. Compared to other states, though, the program was generous. Several states don’t provide any financial support to relatives who are not licensed foster parents. Many others offer what’s called a “child-only” welfare payment that in some places amounts to less than $100 per month.
When Polston took in more grandchildren six years ago, she decided she wanted the Kinship Care payments from the state. But by then, the program had been closed to new families.
The state froze the Kinship Care Program in 2013, citing a budget shortfall of $87 million.
“I was madder than a hatter,” recalled Polston, 53. “I know the government hurts for money. But speaking as a family of six, we hurt for money too.”
Many Kentucky relative caregivers considered the Kinship Care Program workable: a small but reliable monthly payment that came without the scrutiny of licensed foster care. Those relatives in the Kinship Care Program before 2013 have continued to receive $300 per month until the child turns 18. By 2019, the program was supporting around 5,000 children, a figure that has shrunk every year.
The state created a new path to funding for relatives in 2019: becoming approved foster parents, though that plan has created new confusion. For the thousands who agreed to take custody in that half-decade between programs, assistance has been minimal.
A spokesperson for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services did not answer emailed questions about whether the new policies are too confusing for caregivers and state workers, or what financial assistance might be available to relative caregivers stuck in the gap between 2013 and 2019. “Across the commonwealth, relatives and fictive kin are unsung heroes,” the spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. “We continue to assure that staff are provided with extensive training in order to meet the unique needs of relative caregivers while continuing to expand services available to them.”
Youth advocates want the state to fund the families who missed out so they can focus on caregiving, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. But that’s expensive, and politically formidable. Re-opening the Kinship Care Program to additional families could cost tens of millions each year.
Proponents of paying kinship caregivers less than foster parents point out that they receive fewer trainings and, some argue, they simply need less financial incentive to take in a child they already know.
Relatives outside the foster care system are eligible for some safety net benefits, including food stamps and the state’s child health insurance program. Those who can demonstrate serious financial need can get a monthly payment under the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or KTAP, the state’s welfare program. That starts at $186 a month per child.
Leanne Barton, 56, is raising her two grandchildren in Bourbon County. Due to the pandemic, she spends most of her time in close proximity to her grandkids, monitoring their schoolwork and listening in on their online classes. Like thousands of her peers, she’s struggling on $186 per month for the children she is raising and protecting from foster care. But despite her hardship, she said, “I didn’t do this because it was more money.
“I do it for the kids.”
Court: Kentucky Unequal Benefits Were Illegal
With its support for hidden foster care gutted after the 2013 moratorium on the Kinship Care Program, Kentucky faced pressure to diminish the disparities between relative caregivers and foster parents.
Lawyers and advocates representing kinship caregivers took the state to federal court, arguing their clients had been relegated to second-class status. Previous court battles established that if relatives are licensed as foster parents, states must pay them the same rate they would any other licensed home. But federal policies allow states to place kids with kin by simply “approving” them, a process that involves a background check but less training.
D.O. v Glisson would finally test what many national child welfare observers bemoaned as a double standard. The plaintiff, a great-aunt raising two young boys, argued she was due payments from the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services. In 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Deborah Cook ruled that Kentucky had to pay relative caregivers it approved as foster parents on the same basis as licensed foster parents. “[I]f Kentucky is denying benefits because the aunt is related to the children, it is violating federal law,” Cook wrote.
Two years later, Kentucky legislators created a relative payment structure. At a 2019 hearing in support of the bill, state Rep. Chris Fugate, a Republican from Perry County in the southeastern corner of the state, said the new program “basically reinstitutes [the] Kentucky Kinship Care Program” that was stopped in 2013.
But critics of the plan describe it as a sort of Kinship Care-lite — a restrictive and overly complicated scheme that formalizes the second-class status of kin instead of ending it.
More Money Available — If You Give Up Custody
Under the new plan, relative caregivers can get approved as a “child-specific foster parent.” The state retains custody of the child and the relative caregiver receives $6 per day while awaiting approval and $11.51 once approved. It’s slightly more than the old Kinship Care Program, but still significantly less than what’s received by licensed foster parents raising children they aren’t related to — which starts at $24.10 per child, per day. It’s also a fraction of what federal estimates say a middle-income family actually spends per child.
A bill passed by the Kentucky legislature last week requires kinship caregivers receive a “detailed placement packet” listing supports available to kinship caregivers, including a notification form explaining the process of becoming a child-specific foster home. State rules already require social workers to discuss service and benefit options with families, but the bill’s proponents say new requirements would clarify a process that has confused many families.
Significantly, the new program excludes relative caregivers who immediately take custody of a child, meaning a relative willing to take in a child might have to first let them be placed with strangers in foster care.
For Susan Sanchez, a Louisville grandmother raising her 14-year-old grandson, the idea that she would have had to give up her grandson to be able to afford raising him was unacceptable.
As a result of emotional and physical abuse from childhood, her grandson suffers from severe anxiety, she said. He can’t see a movie in a public theater, let alone ride a public bus without risk of a panic attack. Foster care wasn’t an option. “If my grandson had to go into foster care in order for me to get him, I would have made such a bucket of myself downtown in the courthouse that they probably would’ve arrested me,” she said.
Sanchez receives some support from the KTAP benefits program, but no child support from the boy’s parents or kinship payments. She took in her grandson just weeks after the Kinship Care Program was closed, in 2013, and she’s received nothing from the new relative care program established in 2019.
Had she been a licensed foster parent, Sanchez could have received more than $60,000 over the last eight years. Sometimes she thinks about how that money could’ve changed things. Maybe she would’ve gotten her grandson into youth sports, or she would’ve bought a car so he could explore his hometown.
“I have five credit cards I maxed out and haven’t been able to pay on in over six years,” Sanchez said. “We take our family members out of love, not for financial gain.”
‘Robbing Peter to Pay Paul’
It’s unknown exactly how many children live in kinship placements in Kentucky because the state isn’t releasing data on the status of thousands of abused or neglected children who were removed from the home of their biological parents, despite a state law that requires the data be kept. In September, DCBS released a report with partial data on kinship placements, and state officials said in interviews they need more time to gather and analyze additional data because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The data that is available suggests that in the years since Kentucky stopped giving money to caregivers in informal placements, the number of youth in foster care living with relatives increased dramatically. According to federal data, 12% of Kentucky foster youth lived with relatives in 2019. That’s well below the national average of 31%, but four times the proportion who lived with kin in 2015.
Barry Shrout is proud of his four granddaughters, ages 7 to 14. He leaps at every chance to brag about them: the As on their report cards, their achievements in cheerleading and basketball, their quick wits and good spirits.
Shrout, a 63-year-old in Maysville who runs a small delivery service, took in his eldest granddaughter a decade ago, when her parents were in the throes of drug abuse and trouble with the law. He got custody of the other three more than a year ago.
Like a lot of kinship caregivers, Shrout is confused why he’s being paid less than foster parents for the same work. “I’m doing the same thing with my children as a foster parent is,” he said.
He also gets more money for one child than the others, an example of how the ever-changing policies can create unequal circumstances within a single family.
Each month, Shrout receives a total of just $562 in state support: kinship care payments for his eldest granddaughter, and KTAP for the other three.
With their other expenses, he said it isn’t enough to take his four grandchildren to McDonald's.
“Our circumstances aren’t great,” said Shrout. “I’m in the situation where I’m robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Although Shrout could receive hundreds more dollars as a licensed foster parent through the 2019 program, he doesn’t think the tradeoff is worth the risks, even with his hardships. “I want to give them the best life that I can give them,” he said. “I know some parents out there don’t care. But I’m one of them that does.”
This article has been co-published with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom by Louisville Public Media.
Support for this article was provided by The Fund for Investigative Journalism