As foster care numbers surge, relative caregivers get short shrift
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Today, the federal government released new data showing that foster care numbers have risen for the fifth straight year in a row – up to nearly 443,000, an 11.5 percent increase from 2012 when the surge began.   

While people will immediately ask why foster care rates care are their highest since 2009; another very important question needs to be asked: Where are all those children living?

The answer, ever increasingly, is with family members. The problem is that the grandparents, aunts and extended family who take in their grandchildren, nieces and cousins so those children don’t wind up deeper in the foster care system are routinely denied payments and systemically diverted from important resources. When Congress passed a landmark foster care law bill earlier this year, they enshrined this second-class status on relative caregivers nationwide. 

Forty-four states saw an increase in relative placements from 2012 to 2016, according to federal data. In 23 of those states, more than half of all relative caregivers receive no assistance from state child welfare agencies. In all, relatives care for nearly a third of all foster children in America today. But these are only the relatives caring for children who enter the system. Generations United estimates that a total of 2.6 million children are living with relatives today.

 Inasmuch, and especially as foster care numbers continue to rise, relatives are an enormously precious resource in efforts to both prevent children from entering foster care and nurture them when they do. Despite this truth – readily acknowledged by lawmakers at all levels of government – relative caregivers are often paid less and given less attention than traditional foster parents.

Take the example of 72-year-old Georgia resident Eugene Vickerson who took in his grandson and granddaughter in while his daughter suffered through substance abuse issues. Vickerson remembers a child welfare worker from the state’s Division of Family and Children Services showing up at his doorstep in Atlanta with his 16-month-old daughter. 

“The worker told me if I didn’t take her she would be turned over to protective services,” Vickerson said. He remembers not having a bed for the baby girl and being scared he would smother her that first night in his home.

From then on he “fought tooth and nail” for help from the Division. Georgia, like many states across the country, routinely pays relative caregivers less than non-relative foster parents: licensed foster parents are paid $26 to $30 per day, while unlicensed relatives receive $17 to $21 per day. Vickerson said it took more than two years to get licensed. While he was tenacious, he said many other grandparents became fatigued by the bureaucracy and simply “gave up.”

But the double standard doesn’t stop on the local level, it is pervasive on Capitol Hill.

In February Congress passed and President TrumpDonald John TrumpMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Avenatti denies domestic violence allegations: 'I have never struck a woman' Trump names handbag designer as ambassador to South Africa MORE signed the Family First Prevention Services Act. The sweeping new law amends how the federal government finances foster care – and puts new focus on keeping kids from entering foster care in the first place. To do so Family First frees up new funds to offer parents who are in dire risk of losing their children 12 months of substance abuse, mental health or parenting skills services. The law expects that family members will step in to care for these children while parents receive services, but doesn’t offer any new funds to help them do so. While most relatives in Mr. Vickerson’s situation wouldn’t hesitate to take in family, is it fair for the federal government to assume they have the resources to do so?

Not really. There is ample evidence pointing to the fact that the relatives foster care systems rely on to care for children are often socio-economically vulnerable.

“Money matters when it comes to raising kids,” U.C. Berkeley researcher Jill Duerr-Berrick told me in an email. Kin caregivers’ “poverty – without financial subsidies to help care for these children – will mean poverty for these kids.”

With a whole new class of Congressional leaders set to be sworn in next year, my hope is that relatives will be given the respect they deserve. That these new leaders and those who championed Family First will stop simply celebrating relatives for bailing out a foster care system that would be in crisis without their help, and start paying up.

Daniel Heimpel is the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change, a national news site covering child welfare and juvenile justice.