by Nell Bernstein
(PNS) -- "Our grandchildren are luckier than most," a California grandmother told a group of others. "They're not in a foster home. They get to know that we've loved them since they were born." The women were gathered at a community organization that offered grandparents raising grandchildren a support group, activities for the kids and a box of cereal to take home at the end of the month when the grocery money ran out.
Among the budget cuts that squeaked through Congress just before Christmas was a provision that will take food -- $400 million worth -- out of the already-bare cupboards of grandparent-headed households. The provision will cut foster care payments to thousands of children who live with relatives -- usually elderly, impoverished grandmothers.
This measure heightens an already-painful disparity between the support offered non-related foster parents and that provided to so-called "kinship caregivers." "I've seen grandmothers mortgage their houses to the gills in order to provide for the child," says Susan Burton, who founded and runs a network of homes in Southern California for prisoners re-entering society. Many of the women she serves left their children with grandma when they went to prison.
Grandparents care for at least 2.4 million children nationwide, according to the U.S. Census.
"I've seen grandmothers lose their homes, go into bad credit to supply the needs of the child," Burton says. "Then you see the amount of money that would go into foster care for that same child. It says that the state is promoting the separation of families -- that children's needs are more apt to get met if they are taken from their family."
In researching a book about children whose parents are incarcerated, I spent time with grandparents across the country -- old women and occasionally old men who had been handed the burden of caring for a generation left parentless by addiction and incarceration. They had shouldered it willingly -- there had been no question, they told me again and again, that they would take the children -- but they were struggling beneath its weight all the same. Under the new budget, that weight will get heavier.
Nearly two-thirds of children being raised by single grandmothers live in poverty. Only about a quarter receive any aid at all from foster care or welfare. As I spoke with grandparents about the shame and frustration they faced when they tried to get help in caring for their grandchildren, it wasn't hard to see why most walked away empty-handed.
In Arkansas, home to about 37,000 grandparent-headed households, I heard stories such as these:
A grandmother calls the child welfare department seeking kinship foster care payments on behalf of her grandchildren. She is told that she will first have to place the children in the custody of strangers while the department does an investigation to determine whether she and her home meet state standards. This information is often accompanied by what Dee Ann Newell, who ran a program that served these grandmothers, called a "veiled threat, if not a direct threat: We're gonna take your kids and you won't have any assurance that you'll get them back." Needless to say, few grandparents pursued this avenue of support any further. Out of the 3,000 Arkansas families receiving foster care payments, only 200 were kinship families.
A woman is caring for her incarcerated sister's children. She seeks welfare payments on the children's behalf -- which in Arkansas amount to $81 a month for the first child and $42 for each subsequent child -- and is told she is not eligible. On her third visit, a worker concedes that she is in fact eligible, but warns her that if she seeks benefits, her sister will be required to pay the state back upon her release.
Republican leaders who orchestrated the latest round of budget cuts described them as intended to "root out government inefficiency and waste." The grandmothers I met in Arkansas were raising their grandchildren, often several at a time, on an average annual income of $7,800.
"We are standing on the backs of these grandmothers," observed Newell, who said children sometimes called her office themselves to report that they had run out of food. Were the grandmothers to withdraw their unpaid services, she pointed out, it would "break the bank of the state."
Caretakers who are not related to the children under their roofs escaped last week's cuts. Nonetheless, there's a chronic shortage of volunteers. Agencies seeking to recruit unrelated foster parents have taken to advertising on public transportation: "Need a real job? Become a foster parent," posters read.
If they are indeed luckier than most children in foster care, children raised by grandparents are also likely hungrier than most -- and more anxious. "My grandma gets nothing," 15-year-old Teresa told me. "She's 69 and she works as a cook. She had a stroke already, and something was wrong with her heart -- she couldn't breathe."
"My grandmother gets SSI and welfare gives her $140 a month for four children," Teresa's best friend Amanda, also 15, chimed in. "My grandmother has practically wiped out her whole bank account already, all her savings. I don't know if she's going to have any money for next month's rent."
Experts are predicting that the latest budget cuts will push grandparent-headed households over the edge -- that some will simply become too poor to keep the grandkids, and more children will pour into stranger care as grandma fails to make next month's rent. As we continue to subsidize marriage promotion campaigns and other "pro-family" initiatives, it's worth thinking about whether the cash we'll save by stripping grandma's cupboard will be worth the price we pay in shattered families.
January 3, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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