Children's Voice Mar/Apr 2008

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Extended Support for Extended Families

"Front-end" subsidized guardianship programs are supporting relative caregiver arrangements for children before they enter foster care.

By Jennifer Michael, Mary Bissell, and Susan Robison

Carolyn Jackson's granddaughter Dalonna was just 2 years old when Jackson received a call every grandparent dreads--her daughter was being incarcerated and Jackson needed to pick up Dalonna right away.

As a parent coordinator for the New Haven, Connecticut, schools for 16 years, Jackson was well aware of the increasing number of grandparents raising grandchildren. She had even started a support group called Grandparents on the Move that was designed to help these caregivers. But Jackson never dreamed she would herself become a grandparent raising a grandchild. On that day, she joined the 2.5 million grandparents nationwide who have become primary caregivers for children.

Jackson has struggled with the financial impact of raising her grandchild. "Six months after I got Dalonna, I qualified for Care for Kids assistance, but another year I lost it," she explains. "I got a cost-of-living wage raise that amounted to $5 [per month], and then lost the $200 per month payment for Head Start."

Because of her work with other grandparents involved in the child welfare system, Jackson knows she's not alone. "I don't get it," she laments. "The child welfare system often removes children from their parents because of poverty, and then their grandparents go into poverty trying to take care of them."

Grandparents like Jackson, as well as countless aunts, uncles, and other relatives, have long provided a safe harbor for vulnerable children who cannot safely live with their parents. Recognizing that children fare better when they are placed with relatives who know and love them, child welfare agencies are seeking out and supporting relatives willing to care for children while efforts are made to return them to their parents.

To support these children and their relatives as effectively as possible, the field is exploring "preventive" or "front-end" subsidized guardianship programs. The programs provide financial assistance to kinship caregivers who have or are seeking permanent legal guardianship of children before the children are placed outside the home--the children served by the programs are not required to enter foster care to be eligible.

The financial subsidy is the primary benefit of front-end guardianship programs, but a few offer additional services such as medical care, child care, legal assistance for obtaining permanent guardianship, and financial aid to cover a portion of the start-up costs associated with providing a permanent home. The hope is the guardianship arrangements can prevent unnecessary placement in foster care, achieve better outcomes for children, and decrease strains on already overwhelmed and underfinanced child welfare systems.

Six states--Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Ohio--and the District of Columbia have developed such programs over the last decade. The Louisiana Kinship Care Subsidy Program, which started in 1999, is the most established. The newest--the Kansas Grandparents as Caregivers Program--started last year.

Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, New Jersey, and Ohio fund their programs through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Kansas uses state funds, and DC uses general funds. The programs represent efforts to use federal TANF funds and state appropriations to bridge gaps created by limitations on the use of federal child welfare funds for children living with relatives.

Without such programs, few options exist for family members to obtain financial assistance for raising a child. Typically, states use TANF to provide basic financial support for child-only cases--where no parent is present or included in the "assistance unit"--but these funds are limited in the amount of assistance available. Champions of front-end guardianship programs report the programs' subsidy levels are not only slightly higher than TANF child-only payments (and are available on a per-child basis, rather than incremental amounts for each additional child), but they also provide an incentive for relatives to obtain permanent legal guardianship so they can make important decisions on behalf of the child, particularly regarding health care and education.

Program Goals

Subsidized guardianship programs aimed at preventing the need for out-of-home care can share many of the goals of other child welfare policies to improve child welfare outcomes:

Avoiding the human and financial costs of foster care. Front-end subsidized guardianship programs can prevent the need for foster care and avoid the human and financial costs associated with the child welfare system. Allowing children to live with relatives who can safely care for them and make important decisions on their behalf is not only good for families, it avoids costly child protection investigations, court hearings, foster care licensing, caseworker visits, administrative expenses, and other costs. Although some programs restrict assistance to children with child protection cases, many do not require involvement in the child welfare system.

Helping relative guardians meet the basic needs of children in their care. Front-end guardianship programs can ensure basic needs are met for children living with relative caregivers. More that 20% of relative-headed households in the United States live in poverty. Grandparents and other caregivers may be retired and living on fixed incomes. Others within this group are working at low paying jobs. The expenses of raising a child are beyond the means of many who are otherwise willing and able to accept the responsibility.

Reducing the disproportionate representation of minority children in foster care. Children of color enter foster care at higher rates, even when they and their families have characteristics comparable to white children and families. And they remain in foster care for longer periods: The median stay for African American children is 17 months, compared with 9 months for white children.

By helping relative guardians care for children of color before they enter foster care, agencies strengthen the ability of extended families to care for vulnerable children in more culturally appropriate ways. In turn, cultural identity and sense of family belonging enhance child development and long-term well-being.

Making permanent family connections for older youth. Almost one-third of the estimated 296,000 children who entered foster care in FY 2003 were between the ages of 13 and 18. Once older children are placed in foster care, permanency and positive life outcomes are especially difficult to achieve. Research suggests that adolescents who leave foster care at age 18 are more likely than other young adults to experience educational deficits, mental health problems, economic insecurity, early child-bearing, victimization, and involvement with the criminal justice system.

Subsidized guardianship can provide permanent homes for older youth as they exit foster care. Guardianship options for youth before they enter care can stem the flow of young people into care in the first place. Even more importantly, they provide youth with connections to caring, loving adults who can help them navigate the transition to adulthood.

Program Characteristics

Although each of the seven programs differs significantly in eligibility, funding, services, and other areas, some common themes are beginning to emerge:
  • Financial assistance. Subsidy rates differ but are generally higher than what is available through the state's income assistance program. In a few cases, the subsidy is close to or equal to what foster parents receive.

  • Legal assistance. Some of the programs provide funds to relatives to defray the costs of obtaining legal custody of the children.

  • Medical assistance. Caregivers in most programs receive help applying for Medicaid or ensuring that eligibility continues for children already enrolled.

  • Flexible funds. Some programs offer assistance to meet the needs of the child, including clothing, child care, and one-time purchases such as furniture.

  • Support services. For caregivers, this includes transportation, respite care, and support groups.

  • Resource and referral. This includes referral to services available for children and caregivers, and might include toll-free hotlines through navigator programs--one-stop shops for relatives seeking accurate, up-to-date information about the benefits, services, supports, and programs available.

Emerging Issues

Every social policy has unintended consequences and tradeoffs. In the case of the supported guardianship programs designed to keep children out of foster care, some emerging questions include:

Are children safe? Inevitably, the effectiveness of this program is best judged by whether children are safe and able to enjoy the stability that is critical to their development. Programs intended to keep children out of foster care must also ensure safety through criminal and child abuse background checks of all household members, as well as thorough home studies to assess caregivers' commitment. Although background checks are routine, home studies for these types of programs are the exception, not the rule. In general, agencies rely on the courts to determine whether legal custody should be granted.

Program requirements could be strengthened to include a child welfare assessment of the home before awarding legal custody, as well as more consistent monitoring of children's well-being by child welfare systems or the courts. For older children, assessments should include discussions with youth about their wishes.

Do parents receive a fair chance at reunification? Although foster care is not a place for a child to grow up, foster care placement does trigger a process intended to give parents and their children an opportunity to live together again. When relatives obtain legal custody of children before they enter foster care, however, it leaves parents in limbo, often without access to services or supports necessary to parent again. Negotiating the relationship between the parent and the child also becomes the responsibility of the caregiver, which in some cases can be difficult to manage. Agencies must balance the importance of keeping children connected to family and out of foster care with the need to help parents and their children stay connected and safe.

Do children reenter foster care? In general, these programs do not fall into any data set that allows agencies to assess their effectiveness. Some agencies have expressed concern that they do not really know what happens to these children and they lack the data to know whether children are reentering care. To ensure the programs are achieving their intended effects, more monitoring, data collection, and evaluation is sorely needed.

Do family members understand their choices? Time and again, caregivers testify to the lack of clear information to guide their decision making about legal options for caring for children. Clear, concise information about the legal and financial implications of all options is necessary, including preventing foster care, becoming a kinship foster parent, or offering a permanent home to children leaving the foster care system through adoption or guardianship.

Child welfare or economic assistance? Financial assistance for these programs is often provided through the TANF block grant, but administration can either be by the child welfare or TANF agency. Although the goals are child welfare goals, one could argue that implementation through TANF also has the goal of creating economic self-sufficiency for families. Because these programs cut across both agencies, confusion can arise among workers and caregivers about whether they are child welfare or economic assistance programs.

Child welfare is a balancing act between keeping children safe and preserving families. Kinship care can potentially bridge both goals by honoring family ties while offering children safety and stability with people who are familiar to them. Programs aimed at supporting relative caregivers before children enter foster care are a significant step toward honoring the ability of families to take care of their own. Through thoughtful implementation that ensures the safety of every child and provides relative caregivers the support they need to care for children, these programs have the potential to contribute significantly to core child welfare outcomes: safety, permanency, and well-being.

Mary Bissell and Jennifer Miller are partners in, and Susan Robison a consultant to, ChildFocus, a child welfare policy consulting, research, and strategic planning group. This article was adapted from the 2006 report, "Preventive" Subsidized Guardianship Programs: An Emerging Option for Permanent Kinship Care, prepared by ChildFocus for Cornerstone Consulting Group. Available at, the report highlights how front-end subsidized guardianship programs vary across states, including child and caregiver eligibility requirements, subsidy amounts, and numbers of participants.

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