Mercedes Bristol was already caring for an infant grandchild when her son dropped off his other four kids at her San Antonio home for what she thought would be an overnight stay. She didn’t have beds for them but figured they’d be OK for one night.
That was 10 years ago, and they never left.
“When I got the kids, I wasn’t prepared,” said Bristol, now 67. “I just threw blankets down on the floor. They didn’t come with clothes, anything.”
Bristol is one of more than 12,000 grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives in Texas raising children from their extended families. Many of them receive little to no financial assistance from the state because they aren’t eligible or choose not to become formally licensed foster parents.
A new bill moving through the Texas Legislature aims to change that, bringing the state’s policy into alignment with a recent federal ruling on the issue.
Senate Bill 94, authored by San Antonio Democrat José Menéndez, would allow these relatives — called kinship caregivers — to receive standard foster care payments, regardless of whether they were licensed as foster parents, rather than the reduced benefits currently offered.
Monthly foster care payments in Texas range from $812 to $2,773 per child, while relative caregivers currently receive a maximum of $406 per month for up to one year, plus a $500 annual stipend for a maximum three years, or until the child’s 18th birthday.
In a recent interview with The Imprint, Menéndez said it makes no sense to compensate relative caregivers differently than foster parents when they’re both taking on the same cost and responsibility required to raise a child. And while foster parents have signed up and prepared for the job, kin caregivers often bring children into their homes with little to no advance notice.
As such, they are a vital part of the social safety net for children who can’t live with parents.
“The overwhelming majority of family members, when asked, they step up,” Menéndez said. “But many of these families, the majority are grandparents on fixed incomes, many of them are just struggling to make ends meet.”
Across the country, the child welfare system is propped up by uncles, aunts, grandparents and family friends like Bristol who take in kids when their extended families hit crises — nearly a third of all foster youth in Texas were living with a relative in 2019, according federal and state to data compiled annually by The Imprint.
Ample research has shown that kids removed from their parents tend to fare better when they stay with their own families or with close family friends, avoiding the common and harmful foster care experience of frequently moving from home to home.
In Texas, state law requires courts to identify possible relative placements immediately upon removing a child from their family. Kinship caregivers must pass background checks and allow social workers to verify the safety of their homes.
But like many states, Texas does not provide these often low-income households with the same amount of financial support that licensed foster parents receive. An unlicensed relative caregiver can be provided with 50% of the basic foster care rate, or $13.54 per day.
Ira Lustbader, litigation director at the national advocacy group Children’s Rights, said according to federal law, the state’s rigid approval process for kin caregivers should qualify them for foster care payments.
In 2017, a U.S. District Court covering Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, ruled that federal law required foster care agencies to pay approved relatives the same rate as licensed foster parents. Later that year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of that ruling, effectively upholding the district court’s decision.
While the Kentucky ruling does not apply to Texas, advocates said it is an important confirmation of the federal government’s stance that relative caregivers must be equally compensated. Menéndez’s SB 94 would bring the state’s policy into alignment with that standard.
When caregivers are left unsupported, it’s the kids who lose out on the increased stability and extra resources that financial assistance would bring, said Ana Beltran, co-director of the National Center on Grandfamilies, which helps lawmakers develop kinship care policies.
“Most of us could not afford to raise a child that we weren’t expecting to pay for,” Beltran said, adding that the children “shouldn’t be penalized because they’re placed with kin.”
Federal law does not require that foster care agencies place children with extended family. But it encourages the practice by allowing states to make licensing exceptions for relatives, such as waiving space requirements and expanding the number of kids who can share a bedroom.
Because of these allowances, Bristol was ultimately able to become licensed and receive full foster care benefits. As a single, working grandmother raising five young children, the financial assistance was life-altering, she said. She used the extra money to hire someone to help her get the children fed, bathed and tucked into bed in the evenings.
Lustbader calls the lack of support for kin caregivers “overreaching on the kindness” of family members, who often see it as their duty to take the kids in and don’t seek the help they need to care for the unexpected addition to their households.
Texas is currently being monitored by the federal government, following a class-action lawsuit and 2015 ruling that the state was violating the rights of children in long-term care and subjecting them to abuse, overmedication and repeated placement moves.
Menéndez said his bill provides lawmakers an opportunity to make a tangible improvement to the beleaguered system.
His “more conservative colleagues” aren’t opposed to the policy, he said — their reluctance to support it is based on concerns relatives will attempt to receive money through fraud.
“They’re more concerned about someone somehow scheming, seeing this as a way to make money,” he said. Addressing the concerns he anticipates will arise, the senator added: “I think we can definitely put in necessary guardrails.”
There’s not yet a cost estimate for the legislative proposal, and Menendez said it may need to be tested as a pilot program first, to provide a sense of how many eligible caregivers might opt in.
Lustbader called it a “false premise” to try to save money by providing unlicensed kin caregivers reduced benefits. States that do this, rather than meeting national standards, could actually lose money to help support low-income families, by forgoing matching federal funds.
Ultimately, he added, children in well-supported kinship families have better outcomes, “which is good for kids and ultimately costs the state a lot less.”