More children are living with relatives in Kentucky than any other state in the nation. Nearly 100,000 youth are in kinship care because of their parents’ drug use, incarceration, abuse, or neglect.
The first story of our series explored how the Henderson County school district is offering a support group for relative caregivers to tend to their physical and emotional needs.
Our second story shows that getting financial support is often a bigger hurdle to overcome.
Donating Plasma to Earn Extra Money
Nearly a year ago, Camille Wells of Henderson made a big commitment. She took in her 11 and 13-year-old nieces when their mother became homeless. With four biological children, the Wells are now a family of eight. Camille’s husband works at a local factory and she stays home with their youngest children, ages one and four.
“It’s hard. My husband and I do everything we can. He works a lot of overtime," Wells said. "We even donate plasma if we need extra money for gas and groceries. You just gotta do you what you gotta do.”
Camille’s two teenage sons also chip in with family expenses thanks to their job at the local Burger King. The Wells live in a cramped three-bedroom, one bath home, and just recently celebrated trading in their sedan for a mini-van, which means they no longer have to make two trips everywhere they go.
The Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Data Center estimates nine percent of Kentucky children have been under kinship or fictive care since 2016. While Camille and her husband are still working age, most relative caregivers are grandparents over the age of 50, and many live on fixed incomes.
No Government Interference Means No Government Benefits
If the Wells were foster parents certified by the state, they would get more than $700 a month to help care for their nieces. But Camille voluntarily took in her nieces before the state removed the girls from their mother.
“Mom made the right choice by letting them stay with us before it got to the point where the state got involved and forcefully took them. We opened our home and do everything we can for them, but it can be a burden sometimes having two extra kids to take care of," Wells said. "If Mom’s situation continued, the state would have took them, and they would have been here anyway, or they would have been in foster care, and the state would have been paying anyway. I feel like families like mine, that help should still be offered to us.”
The Wells are considered informal kinship providers, which are the most common in Kentucky. Being an informal caregiver is seen as a tradeoff, says Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.
“The state doesn’t have any involvement. The upside, I think for those grandparents, is autonomy," Brooks said. "The downside is they get no benefits.”
Informal kinship families may qualify for nutrition programs such as WIC and SNAP, as well as Medicaid for their health care. Some may also qualify for the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program, or K-TAP, which is a modest payment of $186 a month.
Formal kinship providers are caring for a relative child that’s been removed from their birth parents by the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Typically, formal kinship providers receive $300 dollars a month in payments through the Kinship Care program, but it’s been closed to new families since 2013 for lack of funding. Formal kinship homes can still apply for K-TAP.
Children removed by the state and placed with relatives who are licensed foster parents would get about $750 a month per child. Kentucky has the lowest rate in the nation of relative foster care and most kinship families get little or no financial support from the state.
A Push in Frankfort for More Kinship Provider Help
Norma Hatfield of Hardin County is president of the Kinship Families Coalition of Kentucky. She’s going to press lawmakers during the 2020 budget session to make all kinship providers eligible for financial assistance from the state.
“It doesn’t matter where they lay their head down at night, whether it’s in a foster home or grandma’s home, because kids need those resources when they’re removed from their home no matter where they go stay," said Hatfield.
Hatfield added some kinship families receiving no cash assistance fear having to give child relatives to strangers providing foster care.
“That’s the unfortunate thing. Public funds cannot just be handed out," said Elizabeth Caywood, Deputy Commissioner of the Kentucky Department for Community Based Service. "There are conditions for qualifications and eligibility. That’s just being accountable with public funds.”
Kentucky lawmakers this year passed legislation (HB2) that creates a program for relative and fictive kin caregivers. The program will give families assistance for things like childcare and health care. Some families would be able to receive $350 a month, but in order to qualify, the child would have to have been in state custody. That means parents who receive a child through an agreement with the parents without going through the state would not be eligible.
The state says it's working to give relative and fictive caregivers a comprehensive list of services and supports, as well as a choice about what kind of caregiver they wanted to be classified as, and what that means for the type of assistance they can receive.
In the current reality of limited state funds for kinship, Terry Brooks with Kentucky Youth Advocates says the state can do more to help kinship providers without providing them financial support, such as allowing kinship parents to receive the same training as foster parents.
“If you’re doing a workshop on building resiliency in fragile kids, if three more people come in and happen to be kinship providers, is that really going to bust the budget at the state? Probably not," he said.
Kentucky Youth Advocates has also proposed allowing kinship providers to take an expedited course for certification as foster parents.
As the state works to provide more support, whether financial or otherwise, Brooks said the onus of caring for these children falls on schools, nonprofits, and faith-based groups, proving that--as the African proverb says-- it takes a village to raise a child.