Child Protective Services removed Joe Ann Howe's two grandchildren from their mother's home about 16 years ago and placed them in the foster care system.
But Howe, then a resident of Woodland, Ga., didn't want strangers caring for her grandbabies, who were then 4 and almost 5 years old. So she filled out the necessary paperwork to have them placed in her custody.
From there, Howe faced a mountain of challenges, which included court battles with the children's birth mother, anger management counseling for her grandson and additional expenses for tutoring and medical care for health problems that went above and beyond what was covered by Medicaid.
These days Howe, a 67-year-old now living in Columbus, is just glad she was able to get the children through high school.
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"You're not a grandparent anymore, you're a mom, and responsible for all that stuff you thought you had finished when your kids grew up," she said of her experience raising her grandson and granddaughter, now both graduates of Kendrick High School. "You've got to love them to take that journey because it's not an easy thing."
Families such as Howe's are the focus of several pieces of legislation that will be introduced in the Georgia House on Monday, according to state lawmakers. The bills are the result of a "kinship care" study conducted to assess how the state could improve services to support grandparents and other relatives who take children into their homes when their parents can no longer care for them.
House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, said she initiated the study in 2013 after helping her parents navigate the complicated human services and legal systems in Mississippi when they were adopting her niece. She began looking into how grandparents and other kinship caregivers were faring in Georgia and discovered that many were struggling because they needed additional support or were unaware of services already available to them. Those services include Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits.
The study covers two types of kinship care: the first is private or informal kinship care where extended family raise children without the involvement of the Department of Family and Children Services; the other is public kinship care where families care for relatives as part of the child welfare system.
Of the 527 children in custody through the foster care system in Muscogee County, about 184, or 35 percent, are currently in relative placement, and about 110, or 60 percent, of those are living with grandparents, according to information provided by DFCS. That doesn't include relatives taking care of children outside of the system.
Abrams said there are at least 100,000 children living in kinship care arrangements across the state, and some studies estimate the number could be as high as 300,000. She said the relatives are caring for children who would otherwise be wards of the state, costing taxpayers untold millions of dollars.
"What we're trying to do is, No. 1, make the system clearer, make sure people understand the services to which they are entitled and create the opportunity to access those systems," Abrams said. "The second goal is to remove impediments to accessing services and information. So we're offering legislation that compels creation of a website that's for kinship care.
"There will be several bills that are introduced because this fits in different parts of the code," she said of the legislation to be introduced Monday. "You're dealing with education, you're dealing with legal issues, you're dealing with human services, and so we want to make sure we're thinking through all of those pieces and that we're addressing as much of it as possible."
The growing need
In Muscogee County, where 525 children are now in foster care with only about 67 foster care homes available, some elected officials are optimistic that the kinship care initiative could help alleviate the problem.
"I believe if we are able to improve that scenario, to improve the situation of grandparents raising grandkids and other types of kinship care arrangements, then we will be able to keep some of these children out of foster care," said State Rep. Carolyn Hugley, D-Columbus, in a recent interview with the Ledger-Enquirer.
Juvenile Judge Warner Kennon responded to questions submitted by the newspaper via email, stating: "Family, including one's extended family, helps to shape hearts and minds. The benefits of love and support from kith and kin are beyond measure in the care of our precious children."
However, he believes it will take more than legislation addressing the needs of kinship caregivers to solve the foster care problem in Muscogee County. He and other judicial officials have enlisted an organization called FaithBridge to help churches recruit more foster families.
"Family is ideal but the larger problem is a serious shortage in the number of foster families," Kennon wrote in the email. "Columbus is really in crisis, especially when compared to other cities of comparable size."
Abrams said the shortage of foster homes and the growing number of foster children may be a separate issue, but it's still part of the conversation about the impact that kinship care has on the state.
"The shortage of foster care beds is about the kids that we already have in our foster care system," she said. "Kinship care kids are kept out of the system. So imagine if we did not have kinship caregivers. What we currently can't handle and manage with the number of resources that we have would explode if we didn't have our kinship care families. And that's the challenge."
She said the number of children needing homes in Georgia is increasing because of the size of the state.
"We're a state of 10 million people and we are fast growing and the more we grow, the more challenges you're going to face," she said. "And in addition, we have 10 military installations, so when you have deployments, when you have military issues we have a special subset of kids that some states don't necessarily have. And then you have poverty, and that's a strong determinant for whether or not you're going to end up in foster care or need kinship care."
In the past, there was language in state law that mandated that relative-placement be a top priority when a child is removed from a home, Abrams said, but the language was changed when some of the laws concerning foster care were revised. She said State Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, is introducing a bill this year that would reinsert the language.
"The benefits of grandparents and other kin becoming a child's primary caregiver are substantial," according to the kinship care study. "Kinship care families provide a safe, stable, nurturing home for children suffering from trauma of parental separation and hardships. Children are less likely to experience behavioral problems, psychiatric disorders and school disruptions. They are often better able to adjust to their new environment than their peers in foster care."
Susan Boatwright, communications director for DFCS, sent an email to the Ledger-Enquirer with the following statement concerning placing children with extended family: "The Division has a goal of placing about 50 percent of children in care with relatives. By increasing the number of kinship caregiver options, we will increase the number of foster children who can be placed with a relative, thus not needing a non-relative foster home. The available homes can be used for placement of children living nearby and will prevent the need to place them in homes far from the school they attend and family members."
Abrams said the state is already making progress as a result of the recent initiative. She said Gov. Nathan Deal has included an additional $600,000 in his budget to increase the number of navigators throughout the state to help families negotiate the challenges of kinship care and understand what systems are in place to support them. DFCS, under the leadership of Commissioner Bobby Cagle, is also making strides, she said. Cagle has developed a Blueprint for Change and five-year plan to reform the system.
Abrams said inequities exist in the system and legislators will begin a conversation during this year's session about how to address the problem in future budgets.
"One of the most egregious examples is that in Georgia if you are a foster parent vs. a kinship caregiver, you are entitled to much more in terms of financial aid for that child, and there's actually a cap on how much you can receive if you're a kinship caregiver vs. if you're a foster parent," she said. "There is no reason why there shouldn't be parity. You both are taking care of someone else's child and you're both providing a service that the state needs provided and so we should give you equal support because you're both doing important work."
Abrams said foster parents receive $438 a month for a 5-year-old child and that number increases to $564 for a child who is 13 or older. A kinship caregiver in the same situation receives $155 a month for a child regardless of age. And while foster parents receive the same amount for each additional child, the assistance for kinship caregivers decreases the more children they take in.
Abrams said foster care parents also receive opportunities to rest through a respite care program, which is not currently available to relatives.
"When you're a 65-year-old grandmother who suddenly has a 4-year-old you're taking care of, you often will not get another day off for another 12 years," Abrams said. "Foster parents get 10 days of what they call respite care. That's when kids can go to a summer camp, they can participate in activities and it's essentially designed to give caregivers a chance at rest. Grandparents don't get that. If you are a kinship caregiver, you have to be a foster parent. And often grandparents can't qualify as foster parents because of age or infirmity."
Meeting the challenge
Howe knows the scenario all too well. She said her son and her grandchildren's mother were teenagers when the children were born just nine months apart. The kids were removed from the mother's home because of neglect, so Howe took them in.
In addition to caring for her own two grandchildren, Howe also has been a foster parent to many other children over the years and didn't always receive the support that she needed.
"As a relative, you don't get the full pay that you would get if you were fostering someone that wasn't kin to you," she said, "Unfortunately, employers are not forgiving, and when you stay out of work a lot it becomes an issue. I've been asked this question a lot of times, 'Why are you doing this? And what's wrong with the parents? And I feel like I made the decision to take in my grandchildren and that's none of their business.
But it affects your life, and I don't think that DFCS really realizes how much it affects your life."
The family was able to make it because Howe had a good job as a mechanical draftsman engineer, she said, and the children's father contributed to the household when he was working. But she wonders about other grandparents who don't have the economic resources.
Howe said taking care of children is a full-time commitment and she's glad legislators are addressing the issue.
"I think my concern would be when you're placing them with relatives, make sure that they're capable of making that journey out of their pocket because some of them are old, some are grandparents, they're living off of checks," she said. "So when you take them to a grandmother at 70 and say, 'Can you take your grandkids?' offering them a minimum or insufficient amount of money is not going to help."
Alva James-Johnson, 706-571-8521. Reach her on Facebook at AlvaJamesJohnsonLedger.
Kinship Care Facts
• Georgia ranks sixth in the nation with an estimated 103,000 children in kinship care statewide, but the number could be as high as 300,000, according to some studies.
• Over the past decade, the number of Georgia children in kinship care grew six times faster than the number of children in the general population (18 versus 3 percent). During the same period, the state’s kinship care population increased by 78 percent.
• Kinship families are more likely to be poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed than traditional families with at least one parent present.
• The poverty rate of grandparents raising children is 25 percent higher than the U.S. poverty rate.
• Grandparent caregivers experience high levels of psychological distress, and 28.4 percent have psychological distress scores in the clinical range, indicating the need for intervention.
Source: Georgia Kinship Care Study