As the rolls of orphaned and neglected children swell, states increasingly are turning for help to grandparents and other family members, who now are caring for some 2.5 million abandoned children.
Relatives provide homes for the vast majority of kids whose parents can no longer care for them, saving taxpayers an estimated $6.5 billion a year in child welfare costs. Officials say that without kin to provide care, the soaring number of children left behind by parents suffering from drug addictions, domestic violence, incarcerations, AIDS and military duty would choke already-clogged child welfare systems.
But the federal government hasn't made it easy. Just this year, Congress sliced funding to states for foster care by $580 million and tightened eligibility rules, making it more difficult for states to provide federal foster care aid to grandparent-headed households. It also trimmed welfare, Medicaid and other programs for the needy, many of which were used by states to assist caretakers who take in abandoned children.
Left holding the bag, states are redoubling efforts to expand so-called kinship care programs by cutting red tape involved in establishing legal guardianship, providing financial assistance, subsidizing housing, setting up educational funds, and providing respite care and other services for relatives willing to take in sometimes-difficult children, many of whom have suffered physical and emotional traumas.
Just this week, Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) signed a law comitting $2.1 million in state revenues for a program to aid grandparents raising grandkids. Grandparents at least 50 years old with incomes under $21,580 will receive $200 per month for each grandchild, with a limit of $600 per family.
Last year, 18 states expanded their kinship care programs; bills are pending in at least nine more states that would reduce paperwork, provide support services and increase funding for relative caregivers. Many s tates are also passing laws to make it easier for grandparents and other family members to gain the legal right to enroll kids in school and manage their medical care.
Over the past five years, states have begun to enact laws making grandparents de facto legal guardians of grandchildren who already live with them. Other states have called on child welfare agencies to make relatives the first choice when selecting permanent homes for children in state custody.
Maryland last year passed a law requiring child services officials to notify grandparents when their grandkids enter the child welfare system. The bill was sponsored by a state legislator whose estranged daughter's newborn was taken by child welfare and permanently placed with foster parents, without giving the grandparents an opportunity to care for the child.
Nationwide, at least 4.5 million kids are living in households headed by grandparents; 1.5 million more are living with other relatives. Of those, 2.5 million kids are living without either parent present, according to 2004 U.S. Census data.
While most states have some type of kinship care program, the level of support varies widely.
The most successful state efforts include so-called subsidized guardianship programs, in which grandparents, uncles and aunts receive the same or nearly the same level of financial support as non-relative foster parents, but without as much state supervision and paperwork.
Under federal rules, relatives must qualify under stringent home-licensing standards or they are not eligible for foster care aid. In the past, states were granted waivers allowing them to use federal funds to support kinship guardians who did not qualify under foster care rules. In March, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services eliminated the program, but said states with existing waivers would continue to receive funds until their five-year terms ended.
Illinois , while not the first to offer subsidized guardianship under the federal waiver program, is considered the model for kinship care because it has helped more children than any other state. Between 1997 and 2002, the state dramatically reduced its foster care caseload by placing kids with relatives and providing living expenses and other support services.
Using federal funds, Illinois monitored subsidized kin guardians and found that they provided homes that were 6 percent more permanent than foster parent homes. Of the 6,820 children who participated in the guardianship program during the five-year period, only 3.5 percent returned to state custody, in most cases after grandparents or other guardians died or became too ill to care for the children.
Thirty-two states offer similar programs, using money from a variety of sources, including the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), federal foster care funding under Title IV of the Social Security Act, Medicaid and state revenues.
Louisiana, Ohio and Nevada have gone a step farther, offering financial support to grandparents of kids who have never entered the child welfare system. Ohio, Washington and New Jersey recently created so-called kinship navigator programs to help relative caregivers gain access to existing federal and state social services and funding sources.
Although most state and federal policy-makers agree that kinship care is preferable to foster care, many say that relatives should be held to the same standards as non-family members when determining who can do the best job of providing a safe, secure and nurturing home for children whose parents can no longer care for them.
A bill sponsored by Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) would allow states to use federal foster care funding for relative caregivers, without requiring them to become licensed under the same rules applied to non-relatives. But aides acknowledge that chances of passage are dim, highlighting the importance of state efforts.