'Kinship care' better than foster care, but not easy
by CHRIS ROGERS
For many grandparents, the joys of grandparenthood center around getting to love a new child, play with them, give them treats, and take pride in their accomplishments without the responsibility of taking them home at night, putting them down to bed, enduring their tantrums and misbehavior, and being the voice of discipline in their lives. Yet, thousands of grandparents in Minnesota and Wisconsin are both grandparent and parent; they are raising or temporarily caring for their grandchildren because the children's parents cannot. It is a labor of love that is full of challenges. A local citizen group hopes to celebrate those grandparents and connect them with help.
There are a lot of reasons why children may wind up being cared for by their grandparents. The children's parents might be suffering from a debilitating injury, disease, or mental health problem. They may be struggling to recover from substance abuse. The children's parents may have died or been imprisoned. The children may have been abused or abandoned by their parents.
In recent meetings, a local group that oversees child protection efforts — the Winona County Citizens Review Panel — has focused on the struggle grandparents and other relatives face when raising children, including children who stay with grandparents as an alternative to foster care. The group announced plans to launch a project focused on the issue. (See guest opinion page 4a). Citizen Review Panel Chair David Knight hopes to commemorate the efforts of those family members, organize resources to help them, and get Winona County residents thinking about the way our society supports families in that situation.
If Winona County child welfare workers have to find homes for children, whether they are working with parents who are struggling with drug abuse or other problems but want their children to have a safe place to stay, or responding to instances of serious abuse or neglect through court-ordered out-of-home placements, those workers always try to place children with another family member. They do this for two reasons. First, because it is better for children.
"If you place a child with a relative, it really maintains that child's connection to their family," said Winona County Child Protection Unit Social Worker Carrie Meiners. "For children, it can really reduce the stigma that comes with being placed in traditional foster care, and it can also reduce the trauma that comes with being placed in foster care," she explained. For children, even children who have been abused, being taken away from mom or dad is often a terrible and painful experience. Going to stay with grandma, grandpa, or an aunt or uncle makes it feel a little less traumatic. Compared to foster care, staying with family also makes it less likely that friends at school will find out about children's home problems and tease them about it, Meiners said.
"Often times it maintains similar values, and helps the cultural or religious background remain consistent for that child." Meiners added.
"When we move kids from their biological family to a foster family, they lose their sense of culture and their sense of family values," Knight said. Foster children can often wind up in a family with a different religion, skin color, or cultural heritage from them, he explained.
There is another reason child welfare workers prefer "kinship care" over foster care: there are not nearly enough foster care parents in the area. "That is a huge issue for us," Meiners explained. Because of the dearth of foster care homes in the area, Winona County social workers often have to send children to foster care homes in neighboring counties or to far-flung parts of the state. Sending children away to distant foster care homes is both expensive for Winona County and more disruptive for children, who are forced to change schools. They try to make new friends, but kids may be bounced around from foster care home to foster care home several times in a year, Knight said.
For all of those reasons, if there are family members who can take a child, especially family nearby, it is usually better than foster care, Meiners and Knight said. However, a number of things can make kinship care difficult.
Money is a big problem for many grandparents raising children, Knight said. Many of these grandparents live on a fixed income and may not have enough money to buy children a winter coat and new shoes, to pay for school activities and sports, and to feed growing children. They may have trouble paying for gas to drive children all over town for activities or to cover the water bill teenagers can rack up. Grandparents and other relatives who are caring for children informally — not as part of a court-ordered out-of-home placement — do not get any reimbursement from the state, like foster parents do.
Foster parents also get respite care as part of their agreement with the state. When foster parents need a break, there are respite care providers who can watch their foster children for a weekend. "Grandparents don't have that," Knight said.
Like foster parents, relatives who are caring for children as part of a court-ordered out-of-home placement get modest reimbursements, but they have to follow many of the same stringent rules as foster care homes. Child welfare workers inspect foster care families' and kinship care providers' homes to ensure they meet a host of state safety standards, such as having an emergency exit window in a child's bedroom. Relatives providing kinship care are allowed to come into compliance with these rules over time, but they still have to bring their homes up to code. Knight expressed the conundrum these rules can put relatives in: "Now you need a $1,500 egress window. Well, who's going to pay for that?"
Foster care families may take years to think about taking on the responsibility and stress of raising a child — and the expense of bringing their homes into compliance with state rules — but for kinship care providers, the decision is often sudden. "Unlike traditional foster care, kinship care usually occurs in a crisis, without any time for planning or making arrangements," Meiners explained. "They're suddenly burdened with all that comes along with it."
"You've got 60-year-old grandparents — they're not going to put a lot money into the house to get licensed to get through the last few years of [their grandchild's time in] school, so for a lot of the grandparents, it's a tough decision because they don't get a lot of financial assistance," Knight said.
Knight and his fellow Citizens Review Panel members hope to help organize information on the resources that are available for grandparents and other relatives, from welfare benefits to reduced lunch plans to church child care. He also hopes to connect kinship care providers with other grandparents raising children, so they can share information on resources and, perhaps, watch each other's grandchildren. "Some kinship care families became such good friends they would just take care of each other's kids. They didn't have to go through an agency; it just happened," he explained.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more information on the Citizens Review Panel project. People with questions about benefits and other resources that may be available to them may contact Winona County Community Services at 507-457-6200 or visit the department's offices at 171 West Third Street, in Winona.