An easier way to raise them

by Jordan Green

A report released last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation calls on government and communities to increase support for grandparents and other kinship caregivers who are assuming responsibility for raising a second generation of children.

The report, entitled Stepping Up For Kids: What Government and Communities Should Do to Try to Support Kinship Families, notes that the number of children in kinship care grew about six times as fast as those in the general population over the past decade, and that “kinship caregivers are more likely to be poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed than families in which at least one parent is present.” The report reiterates numerous studies that have found that children who live with extended family members experience fewer behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders than children in foster care.

Those findings resonate closely with the family stories I documented in last week’s cover story about grandparents raising grandchildren (“Standing in the breach”). The heroic efforts of grandparents, who are often disabled and on limited income, to raise grandchildren deserves our undying gratitude. There is no greater or more important job than preparing young people to be good, productive citizens.

Althea Weddington, who is raising her 14-year-old grandson while her son completes a prison sentence, put her own sacrifice in perspective while describing one of her peers’ experiences.

“One lady in particular, she was telling me how she was in so much pain,” Weddington told me. “I was looking at the age of the lady, and I’m thinking how wonderful you are to take care of these babies and the parents come in and out of the house not doing nothing. She can’t even get out of the bed, but she said, ‘God gave me the strength to get up and see about this hollering child.’” The Casey report finds that Temporary Assistance to Needy Families covers only 25 percent of the cost of raising one child and only 17 percent of the cost of two children. In comparison, benefits to strangers who are licensed by the state to take in children through foster care cover 52 percent of the cost of raising a child.

One opportunity is the Guardianship Assistance Program, created through the Fostering Connections to Success Act signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008. The report recommends that all states opt in to the program. North Carolina is one of 21 states that has yet to do so.

“GAP provides federal subsidies for kinship families who agree to permanently care for foster children when they cannot return home or be adopted,” the report notes. “GAP can help children leave foster care and find permanent homes with kin and can help states save administrative costs of continuing to visit with and provide court hearings for the child.”

Sara Harper, executive director of KinGap Services of North Carolina, made a persuasive argument to members of the Guilford County legislative delegation that our state needs to support kinship care providers. Lawmakers from both parties responded affirmatively.

More than a year later, there are two bills remotely related to kinship care that failed to get out of committee last year.

Sen. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat who has heard Harper’s presentation, acknowledged that little progress has been made.

“I think that’s a very critical issue,” she said.

“When we look at our changing population of children, when we look at children whose parents are incarcerated, often it’s the grandparents who are taking care of the grandchildren. We do need to provide that same kind of support that we do for foster care.”

Robinson said any initiative that requires additional funding will probably be a tough sell to Republican lawmakers, who control the General Assembly, adding that she would expect the Guardianship Assistance Program to require a state match.

Rep. John Faircloth, a Republican lawmaker from High Point, said as the economy picks again he expects some legislation to advance.

“Anything that has merit and will help children generally will get support,” he said. “It’s just a matter of putting together a package that has both human concern and makes economic sense. Let’s hope we can do something.

“I’m certainly willing to work with our delegation and any other legislators to put something together,” he added.

I first became aware of the issue of kinship care as a participant in an informal and semi-secret bipartisan summit at Smoky Bones in June 2010. Marcus Brandon had recently defeated Earl Jones in the Democratic primary for NC House District 60. He had recently embraced the cause of supporting kinship care, and described it as an issue that could unite progressives and conservatives. Tony Wilkins, who served as executive director to the Guilford County Republican Party at the time, enthusiastically agreed.

Faircloth, too, appears to need no persuading.

“I was raised by my grandparents, so I have a close connection to [the issue],” he said. “My mother died when I was born. And my grandparents lost two children in World War II, so I kind of filled a gap. I probably wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.”