For Jeanne Miller-Jacobs, the decision to take into her home three children after her son and daughter-in-law got into legal trouble was akin to a house fire with her family inside.
“You can’t stand there and think, ‘Well, if my house burns down, what am I going to feed my kids tomorrow,'” said Miller-Jacobs, who lives in Erlanger. ”Or if it’s cold outside, ‘What, am I going to put a jacket on them?’ You just don’t think about that.
“You think about, ‘I have to go get them and everything else will work out and fall into place.’”
In Kentucky, about 59,000 children are being raised by extended family members—that’s 6 percent of children in the state, among the greatest percentage in the U.S., according to an issues brief from Kentucky Youth Advocates.
These “kinship care” situations usually turn out better for the children than foster care—less emotional strain, fewer behavioral issues, Kentucky Youth Advocates said. And it’s cheaper for the state ($10 per child per day for kinship, $69 for foster care), Brooks said.
But kinship care families face abrupt financial strains, logistical concerns and added stress.
Some of kinship situations are formal; grandparents, aunts, uncles or others have gone through state agencies and courts to become the child’s guardian, said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. In other instances, it’s an informal arrangements between family members.
In either case, Kentucky Youth Advocates argues that the state isn’t giving the families enough support.
In April, the Cabinet for Health and Family services froze new applicants to the Kinship Care Program, which offered $300 per month to guardians of family members’ children. The application freeze was part of an effort to salve a budget shortfall.
The number of children using the program grew 44 percent between 2007 and 2012, the brief said. Now, after the cuts, usage is declining. (More on that below.)
Brooks argues that the Kinship Care Program should be unfrozen. But he also argues that Kentucky should could alleviate some of the pressures on informal guardians of kin by creating new protocol that would, for example, allow them to make educational and health decisions.
“This is not an ‘invent the wheel’ when it comes to things like figuring out what role should kinship care providers play in making educational or healthcare decisions,” Brooks said. “There are a number of states that have already figured that out, let’s look at those examples and then put them in the Kentucky context.”
‘Major Life Change’
Miller-Jacobs and her husband, John Jacobs, are in their mid-50s.
Their son is 25; it’d been decades since they’d raised small children.
Until summer 2012. Their son and daughter-in-law got into legal trouble—drugs, they’d learn—and the children were without a home.
The grandparents agreed to take in the children—now 5, 3 and nearly 2—and were later made legal guardians. In the meantime, John Jacobs lost his job; a financial hit that at least relieved the abrupt need for child care, Miller-Jacobs said.
But the children’s arrival raised plenty of other concerns.
“Just like any other major life change, if you have a baby you’re not sleeping and there’s a lot more work,” Miller-Jacobs said. “Just even in the very beginning, there’s a huge adjustment period. And on top of that you add, how am I going to care for them.”
Miller-Jacobs said agencies gave her conflicting information about whether they qualified for the Kinship Care Program—and once they were told they qualified, the program was frozen to new applicants.
Now, she’s facing her own job loss from an energy company.
Opening the Kinship Care Program to new applicants would be the biggest step the state could take to help families like hers, she said.
‘Challenge’ and ‘Opportunity’
As of November, 10,110 children were in the Kinship Care Program, according to data from the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
That’s 10 percent fewer than in November 2012.
The Kinship Care Program—along with the Child Care Assistance Program—were cut earlier this year because of a $86.6-million budget shortfall. It’s unclear if the cuts have met their savings objective, but no further cuts are “anticipated at this time,” the cabinet said.
The program won’t be frozen without action (that is, more funds) from the Kentucky General Assembly, the cabinet said.
The Kentucky Youth Advocates brief notes:
… (I)n 2012, only 9.4 percent of children in state supervised foster care were placed with relatives, far below the national rate of 28 percent.3 One reason for Kentucky’s low rate of kinship foster care is the state frequently diverts children who have been abused or neglected into the homes of relatives who volunteer to care for the children as an alternative to foster care placement. National estimates show that kinship caregivers who step up to raise children in lieu of foster care save taxpayers $6.5 billion annually.
Kentucky is tied with three other states for the greatest percentage of children living in kinship care in the U.S., according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count reports.
In its brief, Kentucky Youth Advocates recommends the state enact education and healthcare “consent laws” that allow kin caregivers to have a voice in those matter for children without becoming legal guardians. The brief also recommends the state ensure that kinship families are eligible for benefits, among other steps. (You can read the entire brief here.)
“We do know that the fundamental structure of families is very different for some kids in Kentucky, and that’s really both a challenge and an opportunity,” Brooks said.
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