Children's Voice Jan/Feb 2006

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Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

National partners are helping focus the attention of lawmakers and the public on the needs of these families.

Donna Butts Brigitte Castellano By Donna Butts and Brigitte Castellano

Nationwide, more than 6 million children live in households headed by grandparents and other relatives. Both within and outside of the child welfare system, these relative caregivers provide an important safety net by preventing children from entering foster care, caring for abused and neglected children, and stepping forward as legal guardians to children who would otherwise remain in foster care.

They often do so alone and with little support. Whether they need legal authority and rights to care for children or assistance in caring, little or no help is available.
Responding to this frustration, CWLA, Generations United, and the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights have begun to partner with other national organizations, such as AARP and the Children's Defense Fund, on a number of national and local efforts to support grandparents and other relatives raising children, and the children for whom they are caring.

For example, with the generous support of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and the cooperation of other partners involved, Generations United enlisted a team of creative talent and qualitative research experts to help develop an effective message to build public support for grandparents and other relatives raising children. The needs and circumstances of these families are as complicated and diverse as the families themselves. As advocates, we must sharpen our ability to shape a consumable, consistent national message that elicits positive media coverage and builds widespread support for these caregivers and children.

This groundbreaking research has yielded several important lessons, and the findings provide a solid first step in framing messages to the public, the media, and policymakers.

First, we must be strategic in how we describe the families, the numbers, and the issue. The most effective language is child focused. Economic arguments may be influential with policymakers and possibly other groups, but the mantra with the public needs to be, "It's about the child." Families should be kept together for the children's sake, and no matter why parents can no longer take care of their children--be it death, divorce, neglect, abuse, or poverty--it never, ever is the fault of the child.

We have also learned that certain terms the field uses may leave the public cold. Grandfamilies, families raising families, and stay-together families all received high marks, whereas kinship care left the public neutral at best. In fact, only a social worker liked the term kinship care. Although further research will help inform future work, Generations United is already incorporating different language into its publications, its website, and other public discussions.

The partners who work so well together will continue to build on the cornerstone this research has provided. Together, we believe we can begin building greater support for these important families.

The timing is perfect. In 2003, our partnering organizations sponsored the first grandparent rally in Washington, DC. Grandparents from more than 30 states, from California to Maryland, united in one voice to tell their stories to lawmakers, the media, and the public. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), who addressed that first rally, subsequently introduced the Kinship Caregiver Support Act; she and cosponsors Olympia Snowe (R-ME), Tim Johnson, (D-SD), and Thad Cochran(R-MS) reintroduced the bill in May 2005.

In September 2005, grandparents and other relative caregivers came together again for a GrandRally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. We're hopeful our work for children will finally inspire Congress to pass this important legislation, which will begin to address fundamental needs for grandparents and other relative caregivers and the children they are raising.

The Kinship Caregiver Support Act has four major components:

Kinship Navigator Program. Because the education, legal, health, child welfare, and public assistance systems aren't geared for nonparent caregivers, these caregivers do not have clear information and access to these systems. In almost every state, caregivers don't even know where to find basic information, let alone actual help. Many become so weary and frustrated that they just give up and carry on as best they can.

The Kinship Caregiver Support Act would provide funds for states to create navigator programs that link caregivers to existing support services for their children and themselves. Navigator programs can provide one-stop shopping by centralizing services and eliminate much of the unnecessary runaround caregivers endure. They can also help agencies serve grandfamilies more effectively and efficiently.

State and local agencies, those serving large metropolitan areas, and tribal organizations could apply for the competitive grants to establish toll-free hotlines, websites, and resource guides on local parenting support available to kinship families, including enrolling children in school, obtaining Medicaid and other health care, safeguarding their homes for small children, applying for housing assistance, obtaining legal services, and locating child care.

Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program. Over the past 15 years, most states have increased their use of kin as foster parents. Yet, for the most part, relatives are treated the same as nonrelative foster parents. They have no special opportunity to become permanent caregivers.

The Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA) mandates that children in foster care have the right to alternative permanency options if returning to their parents is not an option. ASFA made relative care one of these options, but it didn't provide financial assistance to relative caregivers unless they adopt. Many grandparents aren't willing to adopt since it means termination of parental rights and the negation of their own son or daughter as the child's parent.

The Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program would help ensure permanent homes for these children by allowing states the option of using federal funding, via Title IV-E, for subsidized guardianship payments to relative caregivers on behalf of the children they are raising in foster care, provided the children are eligible for federal foster care payments, by allowing them to exit foster care to the guardianship of their grandparent or other relative. States would have to rule out returning home or adoption for the child, ensure this type of placement was the best permanency alternative for the child. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia already have subsidized guardianship programs.

Notice to relatives when children enter foster care. Many relatives are not informed by child welfare authorities when related children are placed in foster care, nor informed they could become foster parents. Sadly, once children are in the foster care system, their relatives have no special rights to become their caregivers. Unless the local department is willing, it's almost impossible for family to become custodians.

Part of the issue is that ASFA's overarching goal runs on two tracks: reunification with parents, and a concurrent alternative permanency plan. Switching from a nonrelative foster parent to a relative means switching tracks. New York State passed legislation that mandates all grandparents be notified when a child is removed or placed voluntarily, and that they be told their custodial options. Thus, families are informed at the beginning and can become caregivers as soon as possible.

The Kinship Caregiver Support Act includes a similar notification provision, requiring state child welfare agencies to provide written notice to all adult grandparents and other relatives within 60 days of the removal of a child from the custody of the child's parents, subject to exceptions due to family or domestic violence. Thus, when suitable family members are willing and able to become foster parents, as few children as possible will lose their families, culture, and heritage.

Separate licensing standards for relative foster parents. ASFA resulted in the same standards for foster care certification being applied to both relatives and nonrelatives. As long as children are safe, some of the stricter licensing requirements seem unnecessary. For example, foster parents must have a separate bedroom for a child. Clearly, not all children grow up in homes with their own rooms, and many grandparents, who have moved into smaller homes, should be eligible for certification. It's more important that children be with loving family members rather than having their own bedrooms.

The Kinship Caregiver Support Act would allow states to have separate licensing standards for kin and nonkin foster parents, as long as both standards ensure the safety of children. Such a change may make some relative foster parents eligible for higher payments and also allow states to receive federal support for more children living with relatives.

With 1 in 11 grandparents caring for grandchildren, the Kinship Caregiver Support Act is not a wish list but a necessity. The children in our care deserve the same opportunities as other children. A grandmother in a support group said recently, "No one knows how hard it is or how rewarding it is to raise a grandchild." It's up to us to help support those who are doing the hard work by changing the way we frame the issues and help move important legislation forward.

Donna Butts is Executive Director of Generations United, Washington, DC, and Brigitte Castellano is Executive Director of the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights, Stony Brook, New York.

Other Voices provides leaders and experts from national organizations that share CWLA's commitment to the well-being of children, youth, and families a forum to share their views and ideas on cross-cutting issues.



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