Eugene Vickerson, 69, of Atlanta, thought his child-rearing days were over.
His son and daughter had grown up, graduated and moved out.
He and his ex-wife had made every effort to provide a stable environment for the children. The sacrifices paid off for his son, who became a psychiatrist. Things were different for his daughter. Instead of treating mental illnesses, she was engulfed by them.
Five years ago, at age 64, Vickerson received a call from a caseworker at the Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS).
Could he take in 16-month-old granddaughter Amor — right now?
Of course, he said.
He was already taking care of 9-year-old grandson Jakari, but he was hardly prepared for a baby. He didn’t own a crib. He didn’t have diapers — or even money to buy some.
“They promised me Pampers, a crib and a potty,” Vickerson said. He was told the child would be fed.
When Amor arrived, none of those things came with her and she was drinking red punch from a sippy cup and eating Tostitos.
“We don’t eat chips in our house,” said Vickerson, a vegan.
Vickerson was one of hundreds of Georgia residents who testified at hearings across the state last year about the challenges kinship-care providers, primarily grandparents, face raising the nearly 128,000 grandchildren in Georgia in the primary care of family members other than their parents. The reasons vary, including the death, incarceration, mental illness, addiction or military deployment of a parent. Most times grandparents take in children in an informal kinship care arrangement. Sometimes the state gets involved and places a child with a family member.
Studies show that children who live with grandparents or other relatives typically fare better than children in foster care, but at what cost? More than 50 kinship-care providers attended a hearing at Georgia State University last December. Many said they are ill equipped and burnt out trying to be social workers, nurses and therapists for the vulnerable children – many with developmental, medical and mental challenges — who are suddenly thrust into their care.
Their various complaints boiled down to one over-arching request for more assistance from the state.
The state is responding. Gov. Nathan Deal has asked the state to fund 10 staff positions devoted to helping grandparents and other kin navigate the social services available to them. And several legislators, including Rep. Stacey Abrams (D-DeKalb), whose own parents raised a grandchild, introduced eight bills this legislative session to help grandparents provide for their grandchildren. Three have passed the House and are awaiting Senate approval.
Saving the state money
The bulk of complaints lodged by grandparents at hearings last year revolved around two main issues: difficulty navigating bureaucratic red tape, such as getting children vaccinated and enrolled in schools without parental approval, and lack of financial resources to feed and clothe additional family members for the long term.
They cited a lack of responsiveness from the state, complicated forms to fill out and a shortage of DFACS workers available to assist them.
“You can’t get services, you don’t know where to go and you’ve got to re-apply, re-apply, re-apply for everything,” said Vickerson.
Grandparents claim they’re saving the state money by keeping children out of state-funded foster care.
The state pays foster parents on average $450 to nearly $600 a month per child, depending on the child’s age. Kinship-care providers with whom the state has placed a child get 80 percent of that amount. But the majority of kinship-care providers who care for children in informal arrangements do not qualify for any parenting subsidy unless they are disabled or 55 or older, in which case they are eligible for $100 per month, per child.
Children may be eligible for funds from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), part of a federal welfare program that provides monthly assistance of about $155 for one child, $235 for two and $280 for three. But only about 10 percent of Georgia children living with grandparents receive those benefits in large part because many grandparents say they don’t know what services and financial help are available to them.
Numbers hard to track
DFACS Commissioner Bobby Cagle recognizes that some grandparents face overwhelming challenges caring for their grandchildren, but he cautions against assuming the need is greater than it is because the problems faced by a few are staggering.
“There are a lot of families out there who are handling the situation adequately,” Cagle said. “I think we have to be careful about making assumptions that all grandparents are struggling.”
He estimates less than 9 percent of the 103,000 kinship-care providers raising grandchildren in Georgia are having difficulty.
But part of the problem is reliable numbers are hard to come by because many kinship care situations are informal arrangements that fall under DFACS’s radar.
In cases like Vickerson’s — where the state formally removed the children from the home — DFACS was involved. But those cases, numbering about 2,900 in 2015, said DFACS spokeswoman Susan Boatwright, represent fewer than 20 percent of the children in protective custody in Georgia, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Maryland-based child advocacy organization.
DFACS staff said it is impossible to track the numbers — and therefore the needs — of children who live with grandparents and other kin without the state’s intervention.
“The state of Georgia’s response is to provide services that we can provide by law, when they are asked for. Beyond that, to step in when no assistance is asked for, there’s a word for that — intrusion,” said Cagle.
“Georgia has been trying to do better, but it has both underutilized families and also not helped them access benefits that they are entitled to,” said Robert Geen, director of policy reform and advocacy at the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
According to the foundation, about 28 percent of children in foster care nationwide are placed with family, compared to 17 percent in Georgia.
Geen recommends the state educate kinship-care providers with parenting skills classes, which in turn would help the children.
“Most of these people didn’t plan on being parents again,” Geen said.
A personal concern
State Rep. Stacey Abrams chaired last year’s study committee on kinship care and sought bipartisan support for what she called “revenue neutral” legislation — things that would help grandparents and grandchildren without costing the state more money.
She heard the call for help from grandparents in her district and was inspired to respond in part, she said, because her parents had to raise her brother’s daughter.
“They had a hard time even though they had two lawyer daughters helping them,” she said, referring to herself and sister Leslie, a federal district judge.
Multiple studies indicate that children fare better emotionally and perform better in school when they are placed with family members. Such arrangements offer a degree of stability unavailable in foster care, where a child is moved three times on average.
The stability a grandparent provides may be compromised, however, when there’s no food on the table — or when a grandparent is elderly, ill or stressed because of financial constraints.
“What might have been a good Social Security income for a family of two now has to feed a family of five, and it isn’t enough,” said Abrams.
About one in five grandparents raising grandchildren in the U.S. lives below the federal poverty level before children come to live with them, according to census data and the Casey Foundation. One in four is disabled. Nearly a third have diabetes. And almost half are older than 60. Many are dealing with grief over the loss or well being of their own child.
At a hearing at Georgia State University in December, most grandparents said their biggest worries were not for themselves but for their grandchildren, many of whom have developmental delays, mental health problems or complicated medical conditions.
They described vulnerable grandchildren who had been dropped on their heads, had their hair set on fire, suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome or witnessed violent acts. And they have suffered the trauma of being separated from their parents.
“The one thing they have in common is loss,” said Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an advocacy group for multi-generational families based in Washington, D.C. “And they need help.”
Butts said she understands the dilemma states face trying to provide services for these children.
“The child welfare systems are so overwhelmed. They find a place with a relative and then move on. I can’t fault them for that,” Butts said. “But there’s still a long way we have to go.”
If grandparents and other kin do not get help to raise these at-risk children, some predict that many of the children could end up in a foster care system that already is over-burdened.
“I don’t think the state wants to be in the business of taking care of an extra 100,000 foster children,” Abrams.
This report was funded by a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the University of Southern California’s Center for Health Journalism.
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