Relatives are Primary Caretakers of 70,000 Children in Virginia. The State Needs to Support Them.

Monday, December 23rd, 2019

“It takes a village to raise any child. The village shouldn’t pick and choose who to support.”

When children can’t live with parents, for any variety of reasons, the next best thing for them is to live with relatives. Remaining in their communities, nurtured by someone they know and love and retaining their connection to their families, ensures the best outcomes for children who can’t live with their parents. In Virginia, relatives—usually grandparents—are the primary caretakers of up to 70,000 children.

Their efforts enable these children to be cared for while avoiding the trauma of being handed off to live with strangers—sometimes in multiple foster homes. Sometimes relatives take children in through informal arrangements when the children’s own parents are struggling or absent; other times, a Child Protective Services investigation leads to a recommendation that a child live with a grandparent temporarily. But sometimes temporarily leads to permanently.

These relatives are not just helping their families though. In stepping up in this way, they also create a relief valve for state and local departments of social services—already struggling with high caseloads, caseworker turnover rates, and a shortage of foster homes—and prevent further overburdening the system.

Despite all the administrative and court costs these relatives are saving the state, though, Virginia provides very limited supports for relatives. Even a bill passed last year to assist some kinship caregivers hasn’t helped much, due to the very small number of families who meet the requirements for the federally-funded program.

In other states, the relative often becomes the licensed foster placement for the child, with up to 30% of foster parents being relatives. But in Virginia, only 7% of foster parents are relatives. The vast majority of kinship caretakers—most often grandparents living on a fixed income—therefore do not receive the monthly foster care maintenance payment. While the children may qualify for some forms of public assistance while in their relatives’ care, it’s usually not enough to meet a family’s needs.

Virginia grandparents are therefore going back to work after retirement, spending all their retirement savings, and putting their own health and financial security at risk as they struggle to provide for the children they love, who often have intensive needs, including catching up to grade level in school and coping with emotional impacts.

Under a new budget proposal from Governor Northam, the service of these kinship caregivers and the benefit they provide children and the state would now be acknowledged: many would become eligible for a monthly support payment to help ease their financial strain and ensure the children’s needs are met. This would be a win-win solution: enabling children to remain with their family, meeting their emotional, physical, and social needs, and avoiding further burdening the foster care system.

While much more must be done to help families stay together and reduce the need for either grandparents to become parents again or children to enter the foster system, this budget proposal will go far to ensure children are cared for safely with family.

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