Trying to keep childcare in the family

This article interested me because I believe children most often do best when kept in their birth family system – whether it be with relatives or with friends/people connected to their family. I also am concerned about how the government "penalizes" families for keeping children within their family system, as this article explains.

From the New York Times
Trying to Keep Child Care in the Family
By IAN URBINA, Published: July 23, 2006

Some of the highlights:

Kali Ward is just glad she can finally go to slumber parties.
Now that she is out of foster care, the sociable 17-year-old no longer has to get a criminal background check on her friends’ parents if she wants to sleep over.

“People make plans same day,” said Kali, a cordless phone in one hand, an afternoon waffle in the other. “Background checks take weeks.”

Under the legal guardianship of their grandmother, Kali and two of her siblings left such worries behind last year with help from a city program that focuses on moving children from foster care into permanent homes with grandparents or other relatives.

It is no surprise to most that foster care is a system that was meant to be a temporary solution for children but morphed into a system that ended up placing children into "new resource" homes, which is code for placing children in adoptive homes with strangers.

One of the problems is that "legal guardianship" is not always considered a "permanent" placement for children.

Because of that, most programs will give strangers who adopt financial support called "adoption assistance" but relatives who provide "legal guardianship" receive nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Although federal assistance is available to families providing temporary foster care and is available to many families adopting a child from the foster care system, federal support is not available to relatives who become legal guardians.

In Washington, for example, foster parents receive nearly $800 per month per child, whereas the only public resource available to a caregiver outside the foster care system is welfare, at roughly $239 a month, according to a report from the District Council.

This is especially a factor in African American and Native American families, who have long practiced kinship care.

Some states are beginning to implement subsidized guardianships, for those relatives who commit to raising children as legal guardians, but don’t want to formally adopt. Guardianship moves kids out of foster care, many of whom are being fostered by relatives who want to have the children permanently but can’t afford the costs associated with raising them. Especially grandparents who may be on limited incomes.

More than 2.5 million children are being raised by grandparents or other relatives. The number has risen more than 86 percent since 1990, up from 1.3 million, according to census data analyzed by the Children’s Defense Fund. States have been watching the trend closely.

“Grandparents and other relatives have always played a vital role in childrearing,” said Rutledge Q. Hutson, a lawyer at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonprofit public policy research organization in Washington. “But we’ve never before seen so many grandparents single-handedly raising children, and the nation’s foster care system is simply not able to handle so many of them.”

Donna M. Butts, executive director of Generations United, a nonprofit group that advocates on behalf of multigenerational households, added that children often linger in foster care because there is too little support for grandparents and other relatives who want to provide homes.

“Federal child welfare law states that children should be moved out of foster care within 15 months in one of three ways: reunification with their families, adoption or placement with a legal guardian,” Ms. Butts said. “But in 2004, the average length of time spent in foster care was 30 months.”

What astounds me are the arguements against subsidized guardianship. For example:

Critics say states should not pay relatives to do what is their responsibility anyway.

“Members of the advocacy community view these programs as a way to get more government payments into a high-risk population,” said Heather Mac Donald, a researcher at the Manhattan Institute, a nonprofit policy research organization in New York.

Critics also say that grandparents who raised children with problems should not be trusted with another generation.

“I’ve heard from social workers of cases where the drug addict mother is living downstairs from her mother who is getting a payment that is several times what she could get on welfare,” Ms. Mac Donald said. “In a case like that, there is really little incentive for the drug addict to get her act together because she still has access to the children.”

Ah, yes, the oft-repeated "The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree" arguement. Wait – I have an uncle who was a drug abuser and alcoholic for many, many years. And yet, my grandparents were terrific parents. I don’t think anyone in their right mind would have said it was their fault that my uncle became addicted to heroin and alcohol. Oh wait, that’s right – they’re white.

That’s not to say there isn’t family dysfunction and children should always go to their grandparents, some of whom may have abused or neglected their own children. But to just discount them and hand them off to a strange family causes trauma to children and that’s not a decision that should be made based on an assumption.

Then, there is the real issue the government is concerned about: money.

Mark E. Courtney, director of Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, said he supported subsidized guardianship but worried that the programs allowed states to abdicate their responsibility to help troubled parents.

“States may view it as a lot easier and cheaper to give up on the parents and pay a family member to take the children off its hands than it is to provide the services needed by a mother to deal with an abusive relationship or a substance abuse problem,” Dr. Courtney said.

Numbers are hard to come by, but some states claim significant savings under the new programs. Illinois started a program in 1997 that has been studied closely and has moved more than 9,000 children from foster care into permanent homes. The state has saved about $6,000 per year per child, according to a 2003 study conducted by the School of Social Work at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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