Maybe you are a kin caregiver like me: a grandparent, aunt, or cousin who has stepped in to raise a child whose birth parents are struggling with addiction or mental illness. Perhaps you are a policymaker, in a position to make decisions that affect families like mine. Or maybe you are an advocate who wants to help. In any case, here is what I want you to know if you’re asked to support legislation or policy that affects kin caregivers.
Kinship families step up in an instant. When a child cannot safely remain at home with birth parents, the first choice is to place the child with a close relative. The law favors kin placements because children raised by relatives tend to have more favorable outcomes. They are more likely to remain connected to siblings and other family members, and to recover from trauma and stabilize in their new home.
When you are asked to care for a child, it is often in a moment of turmoil. I know it was like that for me. It’s important for anyone who may be in this situation to be informed about all of their options—the different ways a child might be placed with you, and how each of those options impacts your ability to get support. Kin caregivers often need financial support and services in order to raise a child who may have special needs. You should never feel embarrassed or shy about asking for that support. Keep your options open until you have all of the information about what may be available to you.
Nobody willing to step up and care for a child in need should ever be directed away from the child welfare system that provides for those needs. Sometimes, we think that the best thing for a child is to prevent them from entering foster care. However, for families like mine, it can be difficult to meet all of a child’s needs without the support available to us through foster care. My granddaughter was placed with me through the child welfare system. That was the only way for me to get the support I needed to enable me to care for her. I never considered my granddaughter to be “a foster child”: she was and always will be my granddaughter. The support of the foster care system is critical to my ability to meet her medical needs, due to the fact that she was prenatally substance-exposed.
At the time of my granddaughter’s placement, my family had many (new) additional needs. Outside of foster care, the most a caregiver is able to receive in financial support is through TANF, which provides meager monthly assistance. The average TANF benefit for a single child is less than $300 a month. That amount would not have provided adequate financial assistance to enable me to take time off work to care for my granddaughter, get my granddaughter to medical appointments, and help her recover. Through foster care, the average foster care benefit is over $600 a month (and in California is over $900 a month) and many states offer supplemental payments to support children with special needs. Because my granddaughter was placed with me in foster care, I received the level of financial assistance that was critical to meeting her needs.
A relative should never feel pressured to avoid the benefits the child welfare system provides simply because it’s the only way for the birth parent to qualify for mental health or substance abuse prevention services. However, the new federal law, Family First Prevention Services Act, does just that, providing treatment for a parent only if their child does not enter foster care. These laws sometimes disguise what they are really about by using confusing language that makes it sound like they are “pro-family.” The new federal law does not support kinship families who step up to care for relative children. Instead, the law encourages diversion of children away from the child welfare system, leaving kin families and children without the appropriate funding and services needed to maintain safe and stable placement. Although it is important to support the needs of the biological parents, the kin families who step up to provide a safe home for relative children while the family attempts to recover and reunify also need support. Our kinship families deserve better than the approach taken by this bill. We need to band together and be cautious about any policy or law that pits foster care funding against prevention and treatment funding.
Let’s work together to support legislation and policies that champion kin families – there are 7.8 million of us, and we need more support. Effective, compassionate public policy should provide support to children living with relatives while their parents are receiving help. Only then will we have what we need to help our families and children recover and thrive.