Imagine you’re a grandmother or grandfather and your daughter has lived on her own for a long time now. Maybe you have a good relationship with her, maybe you don’t, but she ends up in trouble – a drug addiction, a bad accident or some other tragedy – and can no longer care for your grandson. You haven’t been given time to plan or prepare, but suddenly there’s a caseworker on your doorstep with your grandson in tow asking you to take him in. He’s’ your grandchild, so of course you’re willing, but are you actually able? Do you have the legal relationship that would allow you to manage your grandson’s educational enrollment or immunizations or health care decisions? Did you settle down into a smaller home after your grandson’s parent moved away? Do you earn enough money to support the extra mouth to feed?
These are the questions facing the When thinking of foster care, it’s easy to boil the child welfare system down to two basic steps: First, a child, for whatever reason, cannot be cared for by his parents, and second, the government places that child with a new family. The truth is, however, that foster care is much more like an evolving organism than a simple series of processes. Every year, as data comes back and the various responsible agencies assess their abilities and achievements, the child welfare system is being modified and refined to help find the best possible outcomes for those children who enter it. As a result, child welfare professionals have been listening to kinship caregivers all over the country and are starting to help grandparents and kinship caregivers answer those frustrating yet supremely important questions.
In recent years, state agencies across the nation have been making efforts to improve the lives of children by placing them with relative caregivers such as grandparents, aunts, uncles or, in some cases, close family friends. As a nation, we’ve embraced the notion that children flourish when they’re with family, and so it seems only logical that we would place our foster youth with people they already know and love. According to 2013 statistics from a study by Generation United, 28% of foster children across the country were being placed with relatives as opposed to 24% in 2008. In the same vein, 10 states actually increased this amount by as much as 10% within their own borders. However, the nuances of kinship care make this simple idea much more complicated – as you’ve seen, grandparents and relatives, while often willing, are usually underprepared for accepting a new, young child into their home.
Guidance for Grandfamilies
So, how can a state agency help assist this newly growing type of foster parent? According to Generations United, there are four forms of policy that will give kinship caregivers the support they need:
• Education/Health Care consent laws
o Allow relative caregivers access to health and educational options normally reserved exclusively for biological parents
• De facto custody laws
o Makes it easier to gain custody if proof of previous care exists
• Eliminations of barriers to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
o TANF-eligible families can receive monetary support but currently are restricted due to various grant time limits, asset limits or a lack of extensions and exemptions relevant to kinship families
• Opt-ins for a number of federal programs that support kinship caregivers
o Appropriate federal grants to states are not often funneled to support kinship families, which creates barriers to permanent kinship placement, federal fund access and support programs available through the federal government
These policies and suggestions vary widely state to state, and not every state will have a version of each one or manage them in a way that benefits grandfamilies. Overall, Generations United’s study recommends that policymakers should aim to create laws that prioritize relatives, provide preventative services, ensure adequate supports for kinship caregivers and promote services tailored specifically to the unique needs of kinship families. After establishing these criteria for grandfamily success, Generations United then compared them to all fifty states. Amazingly, only FOUR states scored a grade above 60%, meaning that 46 states in America have less than 60% of the recommended policies and supports in place, and no single state had every recommended law or policy. If you compare this with their findings that “65% of children in grandfamilies live in states with 50% or less of the laws and policies” recommended by Generations United, it’s easy to see that there is still some work to be done as we move the child welfare system towards one that encourages and relies upon kinship caregivers.
Policy in Practice
Fortunately, despite the rather bleak statistics, there are already a number of states that can serve as good examples of grandfamily support. The following 10 states on the list had over 50% of the recommended policies already in place: California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington. Currently, Hawaii is the most grandfamily-friendly state, with over 48% of their children in care residing in kinship care and 8 of the suggested policies already enacted, including all four criteria for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Although they only have 6 of the policies instituted, Montana manages to place 43% of their foster children within grandfamilies.
But for all this discussion of policy, what does it look like when a state is grandfamily-friendly? In Los Angeles, the Pro Per Guardianship Clinic works to help families establish new guardianship status for relative caregivers. This clinic, run by the pro bono law firm Public Counsel, can ease the burden of having to pay for court costs and representing one’s self for parents dealing with the legal system surrounding kinship care. In one place, would-be kindship caregivers have a place to both meet their legal needs with regards to the child in question without having to stress their bank account.
While the Pro Per Guardianship Clinic is a specific state-based service, it is also beneficial to take a look at how some of the federally-funded programs work. One such service, the Guardianship Assistance Payment Program, or GAP, works to help children leave the child welfare system by enabling them to enter into a guardianship with their relative caregiver. California calls their version Kin-GAP and on their website they indicate that it “offers a subsidy to children who leave the juvenile court system to live with a relative legal guardian.” According to the California Kin-GAP website, they cover 100% of the normal foster care stipend that a caregiver would receive and continue to provide the special care increment for children with special needs.
Garden State Growth for Grandfamilies
It is because of all these unique struggles, from housing costs to legal barriers, that grandfamilies need direct, targeted support from the child welfare system. In New Jersey, we’ve had grandfamilies in mind for quite some time. We have been making strides in kinship care for years. In 2012, Foster and Adoptive Family Services put out a whitepaper entitled “The Changing Landscape of Foster Care.” In this document, it reviews the ways in which the child welfare system is slowly phasing out old modes and moving towards a more kindship-oriented process. In 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act opened DCF (then known as DYFS) up to the Guardian Assistance Payment program and built in extended eligibility for kinship youth to access Independent Living Programs in the state. Going one step further, FAFS went on to take a survey of kinship parents to identify their primary concerns – perhaps tellingly, the most common responses indicated a need for assistance – whether in understanding the kinship system, getting more information of their expected responsibilities, integrating the child into their family or with getting through the paperwork. As a direct result of these responses FAFS was able to better serve the needs of grandfamilies across the Garden State.
By staying apprised of the ever-changing needs of resource parents and families, New Jersey has been able to become a strong supporter of kinship caregivers and the children they take in. According to Generations United’s report, New Jersey had 6 of the 10 types of policies and supports in place, including 3 of the 4 pathways to TANF, and has currently placed 35% of all its foster children with relative caregivers. In fact, DCF’s efforts to emphasize the need for kinship legal guardianship is one of the main contributing factors in New Jersey’s current surplus of non-relative foster caregivers. Clearly, however, there is still work to be done, both here at home and across the nation, to ensure that our children have the brightest future possible.
If you live in New Jersey and would like assistance with kinship legal guardianship, please give FAFS a call at 1-800-222-0047, or visit the kinship section of our website here.
If you live outside of New Jersey, you can refer the national Child Welfare Information Gateway here.