Andrea Bennett

Jeffersontown, KY – The number of children being cared for by grandparents and other relatives – known as kinship care – has doubled over the past decade in Kentucky. Currently, 6 percent of all children in Kentucky are being raised by extended family members – one of the highest rates in the nation. Yet, despite this growing number of kinship families, Kentucky offers little support to kinship caregivers as they take on the unexpected role of raising kin children.

A new issue brief outlines the unique challenges faced by kinship caregivers and offers solutions to ensure the best possible outcomes for children who cannot safely stay with their parents. The brief, “Increasing Supports for Kinship Families in Kentucky” was released today by Kentucky Youth Advocates.

Research shows that children who are unable to stay with their parents fare better when placed with relatives compared to being placed in foster care. Yet, a number of obstacles often make it difficult for relatives to step up.

Jeanne Miller-Jacobs and her husband John Jacobs of Northern Kentucky stepped up to care for their three grandchildren, ages 5, 3, and 1 over a year and a half ago because the children’s parents struggle with drug addiction. When child protective services called and asked if Jeanne would be willing to take her grandchildren in, she immediately agreed. She had little time to consider the numerous challenges ahead, which ranged from meeting basic needs, to finding affordable child care and learning to navigate a confusing array of court appearances and applications for assistance.

Jeanne describes the moment she accepted the children like this, “Your house is on fire. Your loved ones are in the house. You have the ability to go into the house and save your loved ones. You don’t stop and think….  Come Monday, what am I going to do with these children when I have to go to work? How am I going to afford time off from work to be at the court house five times this week? How am I going to clothe three children, when one shows up in flip flops and the clothes on their back?  What are they going to sleep on? You go in with super human strength to get your loved ones.”

A major concern for kinship caregivers is the financial burden they experience when they step up to care for kin children. Many kinship caregivers are older and on a fixed income; they do not have extra money to care for a child, or several children.

Jeanne shares, “I met a woman recently who was in tears because her two nephews had to go to foster care; she was low income and just could not provide for them.  No one should be faced with that if they are willing to take them. Taking in a child should not lead to financial devastation.”

Kentucky recently stopped accepting new applications for the Kinship Care Program which provides a stipend of $10 a day to help kinship caregivers meet the child’s basic needs. This is much less expensive than foster care which costs about $70 a day, but the recent cuts mean no new kinship families can enroll in the program. As a result, more Kentucky children may end up in foster care, costing the state more in the long-term.

“In Kentucky, family values are more than just talk. Relatives throughout the state are stepping up to take care of their own,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. “In many cases, grandparents and other relatives are taking in not just one child but groups of siblings with no time to prepare and extremely limited incomes. For these families, monthly support through the Kinship Care Program doesn’t make it easier for them to do the right thing. It makes it possible.”

Another major challenge for kinship families is enrolling children they are caring for in school and accessing health care. Without legal custody or guardianship, it can be very difficult to obtain health care or complete school enrollment forms, but many relative caregivers do not want or cannot afford a legal relationship with the children in their care. Relatives often step in to help stabilize the situation for children on a temporary basis, with the understanding that the parents will resume care once they are able. However, these living arrangements can last for years and often become a permanent situation.

To ensure children in kinship families have access to education and health care, 26 states have enacted health care consent laws and 14 states have enacted education consent laws that allow kin caregivers to access these services for the children in their care without the need for legal custody or guardianship.

The brief outlines additional challenges kinship caregivers experience including coping with behavioral health issues children often experience due to the stress and trauma they have experienced, disruptions in family relationships, and interacting with the child welfare system.

Kentucky can better support kinship families in several ways as outlined in the brief. The state can reinstate the Kinship Care Program for new families to ensure relatives are able to afford the substantial cost of caring for children. Kentucky can also join other states that have enacted health care and education consent laws to remove barriers so that children living with kin can receive health care and attend school. Kinship families also need to be informed on other existing supports they may be eligible for such as KTAP child only payments, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and others.

Kinship caregivers in Kentucky also have the option of becoming licensed as a foster care provider – giving them access to the same training, financial assistance, and support services that non-kin foster parents receive. Many kinship caregivers are unaware of this option which could be a vital support for them.

“We can’t deny the changing dynamics of families in this state,” said Brooks. “More and more grandparents and relatives are raising children, and we need to support them to ensure the best outcomes for kids. Kinship care is better for children and better for the state budget as it is less expensive than foster care. It’s time to step up for kinship families just as they are stepping up for their own.”