I have been the caregiver for my two grandchildren for almost 15 years. My grandchildren were detained by Child Protective Services at the ages of five and three because my daughter was struggling with drug abuse. Both my grandchildren were placed through foster care with me and my husband for about 10 months before we were encouraged, without adequate information, to take legal guardianship.
My daughter was going through reunification services at the time they were detained. When Child Protective Services placed them in our home, we were told that we needed to take legal guardianship of my grandchildren in order to prevent them from being adopted by an unknown family. We were put in a hard spot: we needed the financial support and services we were receiving through foster care, but we didn’t want to risk losing our grandchildren. As a result, we went through with legal guardianship.
We were never told about the ramifications of going through with legal guardianship nor were we told about the eligibility rules governing benefits for each of the different permanency options. At the time, had my grandchildren lived with us for 12 months before we took guardianship and closed their dependency case, we could have received Kin-GAP benefits to help us provide for their ongoing support. (Note: Under current law, families now have to care for children for six-months through a foster care placement before they are eligible to receive Kin-GAP). We also were not informed that reunification services for my daughter would end once we received legal guardianship because the children’s cases had closed. Adoption would have been another option at this point in the case, and we would have been able to receive Adoption Assistance benefits and not had to pay for the costs of the adoption itself. By the time we were presented the option of adoption, we had already become the children’s guardians and we would have been on our own for the cost of the adoption and not qualified for Adoption Assistance (since it would have been a private adoption).
Under current law, there is no financial support or services provided to caregivers who take legal guardianship outside the foster care system. Although we were not technically diverted away from foster care, through our guardianship we were cut off from ongoing supports and services that were critical for us to meet the ongoing needs of our grandchildren because our caseworker did not inform us of the 12-month rule and closed our case before we had been caring for the children for 12 months. After obtaining legal guardianship, we never heard from the social worker again. We didn’t necessarily want a social worker in our lives, but occasional check-ins would have helped. No funding was ever provided to us, either for the time our grandchildren were in foster care (because at the time many relatives did not qualify for foster care funding) or since we have taken guardianship. It was nearly five years after initial placement before we learned about non-needy CalWORKs. CalWORKs provided about $400 a month for both grandchildren, about a quarter of the amount we would have received through the Kin-GAP program.
More critical for us than the financial support was the lack of services available once we went through with the guardianship. My eldest grandchild had major mental health issues. We were not given any supports or services to help her. Nothing was available to us except for Medi-Cal. When my eldest grandchild turned 14 years old, she overdosed on some of my medication. I knew she wasn’t safe living with us without the proper services. She was placed outside of our home for 10 weeks. After 10 weeks, she finally came back into my care with wrap services provided. The services included family therapy which was very helpful. Unfortunately, it took an overdose, which nearly killed her, for child welfare to provide the mental health services she needed.
Other needed services included child support and respite. Luckily, our local church has started to provide us with some respite.
In our case, financial benefits were not absolutely necessary, because we had financial means. But the other benefits that come with foster care that were made unavailable to us were critical to our well-being. We were able to make it work but I realize not everyone is in the same position financially. Placement with relatives is great, but for the thousands of families diverted away from foster care or from subsidized permanency programs, the lack of financial support and services sets these families up to fail, ultimately causing further harm to our children. Families like mine need complete information and counseling to make appropriate decisions to meet the needs of vulnerable children that are being placed in our homes.