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Published: Sunday, 12/26/2010

Lucas County extends extra aid to relatives who take in kids

Cyndi and Mark Wright never expected to become parents.

The couple, who are in their late 40s, gave up on the idea years ago after Mr. Wright was severely disabled in an industrial accident.

Then, last April, they got a call from Lucas County Children Services. A caseworker wanted to know if they could take in Angel, the 6-year-old daughter of Mrs. Wright's second cousin.

"There was no hesitation. I looked at Mark and I just said 'OK, this is the situation, this is what's going on, these are the alternatives: We can either take her into our home or she possibly goes through foster care,'" said Mrs. Wright, who preferred not to give details on Angel's family circumstances, describing them simply as "unhealthy."

"We right away answered 'Yes. We'll be there.'"

Six-year-old Angel adds an ornament as she prepares for her first Christmas in the home of Mark and Cyndi Wright. They took her in last April after Lucas County Children Services contacted them. Angel's mother is a second cousin to Mrs. Wright. Six-year-old Angel adds an ornament as she prepares for her first Christmas in the home of Mark and Cyndi Wright. They took her in last April after Lucas County Children Services contacted them. Angel's mother is a second cousin to Mrs. Wright.
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The Wrights knew Angel well, having frequently baby-sat her on weekends and taken her on trips to the zoo.

But bringing her into their home was a daunting step.

They had never raised children, so suddenly having a 6-year-old to take care of was a big emotional adjustment.

The couple live on Mr. Wright's Social Security income and are swamped with medical bills because of his disability, so bringing a child into the house had financial implications as well too.

Still, the Wrights couldn't bear the thought of Angel ending up with strangers.

Still, the Wrights couldn't bear the thought of Angel ending up with strangers.

"No child deserves to go through foster care if there's a family member out there. Even if there's a financial burden, an emotional burden, whatever there is," Mrs. Wright said. "Family is supposed to be together."

Luckily for the Wrights, financial help was available.

Like many other families who take custody of their relatives' children, the Wrights qualified for $259 a month in state public assistance to help with Angel's expenses.

They also qualified for an initiative called the Kinship Subsidy Program. That provides them with an additional $41 a month that they can receive until Angel turns 18.

The subsidy is unique in the state to Lucas County residents and is administered by Children Services.

Mrs. Wright said the extra money means they can provide Angel with the things she needs without going into debt.

"Honestly, without it I think we'd probably be charging more on our credit cards than we could afford," Mrs. Wright said. "It really makes a big difference."

As of Dec. 10, Lucas County had 231 families receiving the kinship subsidy.

The payments, which rise to a maximum of $852 a month for families taking in six children, are funded entirely through a levy collected by Children Services.

Executive Director Dean Sparks said the subsidy program was begun in 2007 to encourage the placement of children with relatives and to help families who were struggling after taking in a relative's child.

"It just didn't seem that they got the financial support that they needed," Mr. Sparks said. "We had to do something. We couldn't do a whole lot, but we wanted to do something to try to help."

This year, the county will spend about $330,000 on the kinship program.

Mr. Sparks said the county's subsidy differs from another program run by the state, known as the "Kinship Permanency Inititive," which provides income-eligible families with temporary payments to supplement public assistance.

That program is available to caregivers whose income is no higher than 300 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

Mr. Sparks said the Lucas County program is different in that it provides help to "kinship caregivers" until a child turns 18, and it does not have any income restrictions.

He emphasized the importance of helping families cope over the long term with the financial implications of taking in a relative's child.

That's because keeping children with family members instead of putting them in foster care is less stressful for the child, he said.

"Every time we move a child from one setting into another setting it causes trauma," Mr. Sparks said. "One of the ways to minimize that trauma is to put children with people with whom they are familiar, and people with whom they have a common history, and that is family."

In Ohio, it's estimated that 10 percent of households with children under 18 have grandparents as the primary caregivers, according to research by Ohio Department on Aging and Bowling Green State University.

That figure doesn't include additional relatives, such as aunts, uncles, or cousins, such as the Wrights.

A 1999 National Survey of American Families showed that in the United States, more than 2 million children were living with relatives.

In 90 percent of those cases, the study found, the relatives came to the arrangement with the children without the involvement of a child welfare agency.

For the Wrights, bringing Angel into their lives has been easier than they expected. Mrs. Wright said she struggled at first with disciplining Angel, even crying the first time she scolded the child for hiding behind clothing racks at a store.

She also had to deal with Angel's temper tantrums and teach her how to better express her anger and emotions.

However, eight months after Angel's arrival, the Wrights said the little girl has brought new joy into their lives.

She has blossomed at home and at school, being named "student of the month" in November, Mrs. Wright said.

Angel has even learned to help Mr. Wright check his insulin levels, which he has to do as part of managing his diabetes.

"She's been very good for us," Mr. Wright said. "The only change is that now I have to keep up with her."

Mrs. Wright last week was busily preparing for Christmas and buying presents for Angel with the help of the money she receives for her care.

"Honestly, I'm just so excited. I can't wait to see the look on her face," Mrs. Wright said in anticipation of Christmas with Angel. "It is a lot mentally and emotionally, even financially, to do this. But the rewards are well worth it."

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: cbarrett@theblade.com or 419-724-6272.

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