Friday, April 11, 2008

Most kinship care providers in California are single grandmothers

Making new families for foster children
Biddle, Carol. San Jose Mercury News, April 4, 2008.

As president and chief executive of Kinship Center, a non-profit organization serving more than 1,600 of California's most vulnerable children and their families each year, I watch firsthand the vital role played by grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives who raise children in the foster care system.

So do California's children. One 10-year-old girl told us, "Living with my grandparents is like living with real parents that don't do bad things. They are like my real parents, to me. It is good living here."

The vast majority of California's relative caregivers are single grandmothers, and research indicates they are doing a heroic job of keeping children in permanent, loving family settings. Children placed with relatives are less likely to change schools and are more likely to remain with their brothers and sisters and in the same communities.

Although foster care was intended as a short-term safety net for children in crisis, almost half of California's foster children have been in the system for more than two years, and 25 percent of these children have spent five years or more living in foster care. For many of these children, a supported legal guardianship with a relative or another caring adult can be a way out of foster care and into a safe, permanent family.

Most of these devoted caregivers never anticipated rearing a second generation. Many are retired and living on fixed incomes. They have difficulty navigating the bureaucracy of the foster care system, and accessing the supports and services they need for the children in their care. For this reason, children may stay longer in foster care status when placed with relatives, because the change to guardianship currently offers less support overall.

California has been a national leader in recognizing this need by establishing the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Payment (Kin-GAP) Program. Kin-GAP provides cash assistance, medical coverage and independent living services for eligible children. Simply put, Kin-GAP can help relatives provide the things that the children in their care need - school supplies, doctor's visits, new clothes and shoes. Under the Kin-GAP program, relative caregivers become the children's legal guardians, and their cases are dismissed by the Juvenile Court.

But states cannot solve this problem alone. There is a shared federal, state, county and community responsibility to do our best to offer the support relative caregivers need to overcome prior trauma in the child's life, to help them grow healthy and have an opportunity to succeed.

Both adoption and guardianship are federally recommended ways out of foster care when reunification with parents is not possible. However, federal funding can only be used to support some adoptions. The federal government is in a position to close gaps in policy that will erase the current funding inequality that exists for some children. By doing so, low- and fixed-income relatives will have support and services through guardianship similar to those available to non-relative adopters.

I recently spoke before a briefing of the California congressional staff to make the case for federal foster care financing reform. The bipartisan Kinship Caregivers Support Act recently introduced in Congress would provide federal assistance to relatives who create permanent families through legal guardianship and help children leave foster care. The bill would also establish the Kinship Navigator Program, to help relative caregivers learn more about and access existing programs and services.

It will take all of us working together to keep children safe and in nurturing families. We need to support legislation to reform the way the federal government finances foster care, and we need to act now to help the loving relatives who are giving kids in foster care the safe, nurturing families they so badly need.

CAROL BIDDLE is president and CEO of California's Kinship Center.

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