The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.
A new report by Generations United—The State of Grandfamilies in America: 2015—uses laws and policies to assess how well states support grandfamilies or kinship care families.
Using grandfamily-friendly criteria, Generations United identified the top 10 states as California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington.
Generations United applauds these top ten states, but also encourages all states to do better to support grandfamilies. Not a single state scored 100 percent, and only four had a passing grade of 60 percent or higher. More significantly, almost 65 percent of children in grandfamilies or kinship care live in states with only half or less of key laws and policies designed to support them.
The good news is that more and more states are acknowledging the many benefits of relative care. All states have at least one supportive law or policy for grandfamilies and are placing more children who are in foster care with relatives. Nationally the numbers of children placed with relatives in foster care increased from 24 percent in 2008 to 28 percent in 2013.
States are beginning to embrace the research that shows that compared to children in nonrelative care, children being raised by relatives do better. They have more stability, are more likely to maintain connections with brothers and sisters and preserve their cultural heritage and community bonds. Much more compelling than the research, however, are the stories from the children, youth and caregivers. During a December 4th Capitol Hill briefing releasing the Report—co-sponsored by Generations United, the ABA Center on Children and the Law, and many other key national groups —the audience was privileged to hear from a youth raised by a relative and grandparents raising grandchildren.
Shannon is a young woman who was able to stay with her beloved, selfless aunt while in foster care. That consistency and love resulted in wonderful outcomes for Shannon. She was the recipient of a merit scholarship to college, obtained a Master’s degree in Social Work, won the prestigious Horatio Alger award, and married the love of her life. As she beautifully put it, “I don’t know where I would be now if I had been placed in a different home when I entered foster care. I do know, however, I would have worried about my sisters every single day. I would have struggled to trust those around me and I would have blamed myself for everything that occurred. I would have been removed from my school, my friends, and my community. I had a unique opportunity and it was one I did not want to take for granted.”
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
In addition to the point of view of someone raised by a relative, the briefing also featured two grandparents raising grandchildren. These heroic individuals detailed their many struggles raising children whom they did not expect to raise, the wonderful community programs that supported them, and, most importantly, the well-adjusted, accomplished grandchildren they have managed to raise. Grandchildren who are excelling at school, doing well in basketball and other sports, and are all-around good kids who even spend time putting together baskets for those in need.
These grandchildren, grandparents, and other relatives need and deserve our collective support. As Michelle Singletary—the nationally-syndicated Washington Post columnist, Generations United 2015 Media Award recipient, and a beneficiary of kinship care herself—said, the families need a hand up, not a hand out.
Laws and Policies That Support Kinship Families
With that sentiment in mind and in close consultation with many national and state partners, including Generations United and Casey Family Programs’ network of grandparent caregivers, called GrAND, Generations United carefully choose the criteria it used to assess the states. These criteria are primarily the existence of laws and policies specifically designed for the families—laws and policies that reflect the varied challenges and strengths of the over 100,000 children being raised by relatives inside the foster care system and the 2.5 million being raised by relatives outside the system.
Within the Chid Welfare System
For those in the system, Generations United chose to consider whether a state has implemented the federal Guardianship Assistance Program (GAP) option as provided under the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008. That option helps children being raised by licensed relative foster parents exit the system in a permanent home with their loving relatives. Generations United also considered the percentage of children in foster care placed with relatives, which was the only outcome measure used among the criteria.
Outside the Child Welfare System
Generations United further assessed the states by looking at policies that impact the millions of children and caregivers outside the foster care system. It looked at whether a state uses at least 9.5 percent of their federal National Family Caregiver Support Program funds on grandfamilies. That successful program, which is part of the Older Americans Act and which Generations United helped enact and implement, has been supporting caregivers with services like counseling, support groups and respite care since its passage 15 years ago.
Other programs that help all caregivers, but which are vital for those outside the foster care system, are Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Lifespan Respite. Consequently, Generations United looked at state policies implementing these programs, in addition to state educational and health care consent laws and de facto custody laws aimed at grandfamilies outside the system.
These criteria used by Generations United reflect the varied needs and strengths of the families. Some families need ongoing financial support, whereas others may only need a support group to connect with others facing similar challenges. No one law or policy helps all grandfamilies, so states need to offer a comprehensive package of supportive laws and policies to meet the diverse and unique needs and circumstances of grandfamilies.
Recommendations for States
The goal of the report is to elevate top states in key areas and encourage policymakers, advocates, and leaders in those and all states to do more to support the families. In that vein, the report offers recommendations. They include:
- enacting the laws and policies highlighted in the report and vigorously implementing them,
- prioritizing and empowering relatives to make informed decisions,
- providing access to preventative services to relatives outside of the formal foster care system,
- ensuring adequate supports to keep children with relatives, and
- promoting tailored services for the unique needs of grandfamilies.
Ana Beltran, JD, is a special advisor to Generations United’s National Center on Grandfamilies. For over 15 years, Ana has worked to support kinship families by advocating for supportive laws and providing training and technical assistance on child welfare, housing, legal relationships, and other issues impacting the families.