by Valarie Edwards
Twelve years ago, life changed for 68-year-old Danny Baker, and his 67-year-old wife Angie, when their daughter-in-law and granddaughter, McKenna — now 14, moved in. The northeast Georgia couple looked forward to traveling the world during their retirement years. Danny had spent nearly five decades in the grocery industry. Angie had already accepted a buy-out from candy and gum manufacturer, the William Wrigley Company.
The Bakers eventually became McKenna’s legal guardians when their daughter-in-law was murdered in 2014. The pair have held to a promise made years ago to their son that they wouldn’t petition for adoption, giving him time to resolve his addictions and hopefully one day possibly regain custody of McKenna.
The Bakers are part of a nationwide trend of grandparents raising their grandchildren due to a parent’s unavailability, death, incapacity or incarceration. Some families, like the Bakers, choose informal kinship care to keep their grandchildren out of the foster care system and closer to family and friends. Now, instead of annual trips to Europe, the Bakers spend spring breaks at Disney World and devote their weeknights to reviewing McKenna’s homework.
In the United States, 2.6 million children younger than 18 live with extended family members including more than a million grandparents; some living on a fixed income, others who’ve put off retirement to care for them, according to KidsCount.org.
Like the Bakers, Homer and Patricia Haynes of Renton, Washington, planned to travel the world during their retirement. Originally from Illinois, the pair met in college at the University of Iowa and have been married for more than four decades. Both have extensive professional careers; Homer in accounting and Patricia as an executive administrative aide.
And like the Bakers, the Haynes also put off retirement to care for three of their grandchildren. Their return to parenting began in May 2019, when police responded to a suspected break-in at the home of the couple’s youngest daughter Stephanie, who had long-battled alcohol addiction coupled with an undiagnosed psychological disorder.
Although there was no evidence of a break-in, police did report the home’s untidy condition to Child Protective Services. With none of the girls’ fathers in their lives, CPS placed the sisters — then 13, 3 and 11 months — with the Haynes in June 2019. Then nearly a year a half later, at the family matriarch’s home outside of Chicago, Stephanie was murdered. She was 34 years old.
“You never expect to be in this situation. After raising your children, you never expect to raise another round,” Patricia said, adding that it took nearly a year for the couple to become licensed foster kinship caregivers, something they felt was necessary to help support the family.
The resources available to grandparents vary from state to state. Licensed caregivers may have access to resources such as therapy and reimbursement for groceries, hair cuts or school supplies, but the amounts often lag behind what licensed foster caregivers receive. In last place are unlicensed caregivers, who receive the least amount of assistance.
For example, Arizona has nearly 14,000 children in foster care but just 3,000 licensed foster homes. The state has one of the nation’s highest kinship placement rates at 52% compared to the national average of 32%.
A recently introduced proposal by Gov. Doug Ducey would increase the state’s current monthly licensed kinship stipend by $75 — up to $300. However, critics say the proposal doesn’t go far enough and falls far short of what licensed foster parents receive: between $590 and $800 a month, depending upon the age of the child. In last place are unlicensed relatives who ordinarily receive just $75 per month from the state. Although, according to an October 2021 report by The Imprint, unlicensed relatives caregivers did receive a one-time pandemic payment of $1,800 per child.
On another front, Kentucky remains mired in the aftermath of a federal lawsuit, pitting state lawmakers against a great-aunt raising two young boys and who says she’s owed money from Kentucky’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
As reported by Graham Ambrose with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in 2017, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the plaintiff and a Senior U.S. Circuit judge ruled the state must pay approved relative caregivers on the same basis as licensed foster parents. “[I]f Kentucky is denying benefits because the aunt is related to the children, it is violating federal law,” wrote Judge Deborah Cook.
Kentucky state lawmakers have acted decisively since 2017 to revamp its child welfare system. However, much remains to be done. In early 2022, a local judge found the state in contempt of court for the “dismal shape” of its child welfare agency.
In response, Kentucky governor signed Senate Bill 8, which established a State Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board, expands Medicaid reimbursement and more broadly defines fictive kin caretakers “to include those with an emotionally significant relationship with a parent or sibling,” according to reports from The Imprint. However, kin caregivers who took custody of children before the federal lawsuit was filed don’t qualify for increased benefits under the revamped program.
In recent years, the federal government has infused states, tribes and territories with funding to develop or expand kinship navigator programs as part of the 2018 Family First Prevention Services Act. All kinship navigator programs “assist kinship caregivers in learning about, finding, and using programs and services to meet the needs of the children they are raising and their own needs, and promote effective partnerships among public and private agencies to ensure kinship caregiver families are served,” according to federal law.
In the Baker’s home state of Georgia, the Department of Family and Children’s Services manages the statewide Kinship Navigator Program, but the boots-on-the-ground work is done primarily by regional Agency Area on Aging programs.
Veronica Reidling is kinship care program manager at Legacy Link in Oakwood, Georgia, which provides kinship advice to seniors in 13 northeast counties on a variety of issues. Services include guiding grandparents through the legal system, helping grandparents deal with the stress of parenting a second time, securing funds for child care and dealing with the child’s parents.
Other Kinship Navigator programs like Nevada’s Foster Kinship have ramped up support of the state’s kinship caregivers, especially during the pandemic that left parents scrambling for diapers and formula. Offering everything from groceries and licensing training, Foster Kinship’s executive director Ali Caliendo told The Imprint in 2020, “We’re going to make sure our grandmas and great-grandmas have what they need to take care of the kids in their home. I’m not going to let my grandmas drive all over town.”
With generous pensions and medical coverage in place, the Baker’s consider themselves lucky. But for other kinship caregivers across the country, Reidling likens their financial situation to standing at the edge of a steep financial cliff.
The Baker’s home is paid in full and Medicare covers McKenna’s medical care. But the Bakers must still foot the bill for expenses like activities fees, hair cuts and clothing for the teenager, as well as any other expenses incurred on their granddaughter’s behalf.
In Washington, when the Haynes’ needed a larger home and the girls needed new clothing, their social worker helped the family get the necessary resources.
“I’m not sure how we would have made it with three kids,” said Patricia. “The resources and monthly reimbursements played a significant role. We could not have made it without their help.”
As September kicks off Kinship Month, the raised awareness highlights the need for more support for kinship caregivers stepping up to parent their grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other kin.
Valarie Edwards is the assistant editor for Fostering Families Today. She and her sisters spent nearly a dozen years in foster care. Inspired by her daughter’s volunteerism, Edwards is a CASA and believes in mentoring youth in care. Nominated for an Emmy and the recipient of numerous journalism awards, Edwards is an alum of UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Originally from the Bronx, she now lives in Phoenix.