by Jan Wagner
STOP IGNORING US!
By “US,” I am referring to the more than 1.8 million children in the United States who are being raised by grandparents or other relatives outside the child welfare system. Only one out of 26 such families is receiving any government support, other than what they qualify for under federal poverty guidelines.
As an adoptive grandmother who raised her grandson for four and a half years, and as an informal legal guardian, I am one of those families. When I read an article about the need for an increase in foster care services, my question is: what about Kinship?
As reported in a recent article in the Chronicle of Social Change, the Annie E. Casey Foundation and The Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative called for changes to federal child welfare funding. The part of their recommendation that drew my attention was: “More flexible licensing for kinship placements and a requirement that all children be placed in licensed homes.”
Does this include those children who are presently in an informal arrangement? What about those children who are in a relative’s home without the child welfare system involved in placing them there? Frequently children are voluntarily relinquished to a relative home by the parents prior to protective services removal to keep the child from unnecessarily entering the system.
Although it is the belief of both parties involved that this will be a temporary situation, it often becomes a long-term or permanent situation. The children, in fact, become abandoned. But these relative families cannot access the funding or services available to foster families other than a small Child Only Grant (TANF), Medicaid, and possibly a work-only child care stipend.
It has been my understanding that under the current guidelines, a child must have been removed from their parental home by the child welfare department and placed with other family members in a licensed home to qualify for Title IV-E status. The family will then be eligible to receive subsidies, medical, case management and reimbursement for the child. Title IV-E eligibility is also necessary to qualify for a guardianship subsidy.
I struggle to understand why the process in which a child comes into a kinship home should be the determining factor as to whether any support or services are available for the child. It is as if relative families are being penalized for rescuing children from more harm by giving them a safe, nurturing environment before child welfare becomes involved.
Although there has been research into the best way to support kinship families, little has been done in the way of state or federal legislation. It’s not about reinventing the wheel, but about using what is known and already available.
I would like to see less state discretion in adopting and implementing programs such as the guardianship subsidy, and more uniform and consistent federal guidelines. Currently, the amount of assistance a kinship family receives in one state is not the same as what is received by a similar family in another.
An increase in the amount of Child Only Grant money comparable to the amount of foster care reimbursement would help with immediate expenses. If, as the Casey paper states, that all children should be placed in licensed homes, then all relative caregivers should be allowed the opportunity to become licensed without fear of the children being removed during the process.
This would allow state oversight of the homes, training for the caregivers, and access to funding and support without surrendering jurisdiction of their family member to the state agency. Title IV-E qualifications should be amended to include those children in kinship homes under legal guardianship for longer than six months, regardless of placement procedure, thus encouraging the permanency that all children deserve through the same incentives that are offered to foster families.
Should the state and federal governments want to widen eligibility for funding because it’s the right thing to do? Of course it is. But more to the point, the money is already allocated if a child is placed in foster care rather than being in kinship care, yet the administrative costs of the latter are far less. Instead of pouring more money into recruiting and retaining foster families, why not support and train relatives who are willing to take the children? Hasn’t it been proven that relative placement is best for a child whenever possible?
I know what it means to be ignored when asking for the some of the assistance received by foster care families. The roadblocks and challenges I encountered while attempting to advocate for services for my grandson are faced by kinship family homes nationwide. It is possible to close the gap between foster and kinship care, by legislative mandates to make these changes in the child welfare system.
Jan Wagner is the kinship chair for the Michigan Association of Foster, Adoptive and Kinship Parents