In 2017 and early 2018, I delivered a petition containing thousands of stories of personal struggles from across the Commonwealth of people needing assistance asking legislators to pay for kinship care. They were grandparents, aunts, uncles and others, asking for help for children in their care.
They were not the biological parents but relatives known as kinship families. They are family members who stepped in at a moments notice and took custody of children – many of whom were removed from their homes because of neglect and abuse.
There was Katie, a 23-year-old single mother of two, who was called to the school where her nieces and nephews attended.
When she arrived she found her sister in handcuffs and the kids in tears. Katie’s budget didn’t include three more kids, but she took them in a heartbeat. She instantly became a caretaker of five.
Her letter begins, “The state is failing me … I’m lost between the cracks.”
Teresa and her husband who in their 50s received custody of five grandchildren, ages 1 to 7. The youngest was born with several drugs in her system suffering terrible withdrawal symptoms. Teresa had to quit her job because babies born addicted to drugs require intense care. This is a common occurrence.
There were stories from single grandmothers in their 60s and 70s just getting by on Social Security before taking in four to eight children. They rapidly drained their life savings and went deep into debt, putting their own future in doubt while facing homelessness.
Kentucky has the highest rate of child abuse in the nation and the highest rate of children living with non-parental relatives.
There are always some whose perspective is that family should take care of their own. My response is that it’s not business as usual. we are living in epidemic times.
No one thinks twice about catastrophic situations where people lose everything and federal, state and other agencies step in and provide help to rebuild lives. These children in essence lose everything and walk into a relative’s home with what’s on their backs regardless of the circumstances of their caregiver.
By not actively assisting today, we are participants in potential cyclic colliding multigenerational catastrophies. We’re allowing thousands of aging adults to go bankrupt draining state resources later. We are perpetuating the drug epidemic as studies show traumatized children in deep poverty turn to drugs, prostitution and more. Helping these children earlier provides a better societal long-term investment.
Prior to 2013, Kentucky had a Kinship Care Program which provided $300 a month per child. This lifeline recognized the plight of kinship families. It was more cost effective and better for the children than foster care, which pays approximately $700 per month per child.
The program was halted in 2013 but the number of children with kinship families grew. Kentucky went from 53,000 children in 2014 to 100,000 in 2019. Those who needed and requested help over these past few years got caught in the gap, forgotten and waiting.
In 2019, the federal government recognized needs for kinship children and provided funding with the Family First Act. However, many families from 2013 to 2019 are ineligible for Family First foster assistance or the old kinship care subsidy.
In 2018, Kentucky legislators tried to restore kinship care, but many still go without. Some point to the Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program which provides modest assistance, but excludes many because of program restrictions. These restrictions include a family limit of seven children. Kids are penalized for being in large sibling groups.
Looking to the future with Family First initiatives, we can’t forget those caught in the gap. We must creatively re-address kinship programs and ensure these kids are not penalized because they are with family. Kentucky’s children count on us to get this right.