Updated story 8/6/2012
When Roy Jenkins was asked by the courts to care for his grandchildren, he thought the situation would be temporary, and they'd be living with him for a year or two.
That was eight years ago.
Mr. Jenkins, a North Toledo resident, is raising three of his grandchildren, ages 13, 10, and 8.
"It wasn't where I expected to see my life at 53," Mr. Jenkins reflected recently. "But I love my daughter and I love my grandchildren."
He and his family are part of a growing group. Nationally, extended family and close family friends care for more than 2.7 million children, an increase of almost 18 percent over the last decade, according to a recent study about kinship care, "Stepping Up for Kids," by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In Ohio, 233,699 children -- 8.9 percent of the kids in the state -- live in homes where the householders are grandparents or other relatives, according to U.S. Census data cited by AARP. Lucas County has more than 10,000 kinship caregivers, according to the Area Office on Aging.
"It's no easy job, believe me," said Mildred Clark of Springfield Township, who at 75 is raising her 16-year-old great-granddaughter. "It's no gravy train.
"I deem it a privilege. At the same time, I deem it as -- what did I do wrong that I'm having to go through this now?"
Kinship caregivers deal with all the normal challenges of parenting, plus additional financial and mental stresses, custody and legal issues, and other hurdles, experts say.
"It's a total life change," for caregivers, said Arcelia Parsons, coordinator of the Area Office on Aging's Kinship Navigator Program. "They're parenting again."
Mrs. Clark and her husband as well as Mr. Jenkins are some of the thousands in Lucas County who receive support from Kinship Navigator, a program to help kinship caregivers with information and referrals to other social services, mentoring, and support group meetings with other kinship families.
On a recent Thursday morning, about 25 people, almost all women, are gathered in the shelter at Walbridge Park in South Toledo. Most of them are grandparents, who for a number of reasons -- possibly because of a family member's death, incarceration, drug abuse, economic need, or other problems -- are raising their grandchildren. They were there to share their challenges and gain support from each other.
One woman stood up and said that after years of her grandson's being under her care, his mother -- her daughter -- wants to take him back.
"I've had him since he was 5 weeks old," the woman said.
Other women chimed in.
"Are you too attached to the child?"
"Do you feel the child's mother isn't able to care for him?"
Outside the shelter, under a tree, a young man from the Area Office on Aging read a book about dinosaurs to a group of children. A short distance away, a group of older children divided into two groups to play dodgeball, shouting while red balls flew back and forth.
The twice-weekly meetings in the park aim to help both caregivers and children, said Ms. Parsons, Kinship Navigator Program coordinator.
They offer games and activities for kids, with exercise classes, health screenings, and speakers on topics such as financial planning, or attorneys who can advise grandparents of custody rights.
One grandparent in attendance was Lucy Williams, 66. Although she is no longer her granddaughter's primary caregiver, she raised the child from birth until age 11.
"My daughter had a problem. I had to take over. I retired on a Friday," Ms. Williams explains. "And then she [my granddaughter] came that Monday. You just have to do it. There's no one else to do it."
Typical teenage growing pains can also be far more complicated for kinship families, as Gwendolyn Hunt's situation attests.
Ms. Hunt is raising her 11-year-old and 15-year-old granddaughters.
The 15-year-old sometimes runs away -- to her mother's house.
"When [the 15-year-old] started acting crazy, who did I call first? Kinship Navigator," she said.
Lucas County is one of a handful of Ohio counties to offer a kinship support program. Run through the Area Office on Aging, it also receives support from the Lucas County Department of Job and Family Services and Lucas County Children Services.
Additionally, in Lucas County, kinship families that have had contact with Children Services are eligible to receive a small monthly subsidy. There is no subsidy for families with just one child, but families can receive $150 for a second child, $168 for the third child, $145 for the fourth child, $155 for the fifth child and $177 for the sixth child.
"The more kids you've got, it doesn't get any cheaper," said Dean Sparks, executive director of Lucas County Children Services. "We want to enable our relative caregivers. We sure wish we could give them more."
The agency is projecting it will spend $330,000 on the program this year and probably more next year as the program grows. Lucas County is the only county in Ohio to offer this additional subsidy, he said.
"I believe that we have a responsibility to support relatives in caring for their kids," Mr. Sparks said. "The state of Ohio and the federal government have been slow in assisting relative caregivers."
What policy changes could ease some of the burden for kinship families?
The recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation recommended making sure families have access to benefits for which they are eligible, such as food stamps and the National School Lunch Program, providing affordable legal representation, and engaging kin as early as possible if a child becomes involved in the child welfare system.
According to the foundation's study, fewer than 12 percent of kinship families receive assistance from Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the formal name for welfare, though almost all children in such families are eligible for this aid.
"At the federal level, they should continue to be open and aware to the fact that families are growing and changing," Ms. Parsons added. "These families are saving the state and federal government thousands and thousands of dollars. And sometimes I don't think the general public fully understands the gravity of the situation that these caregivers are stepping into."
Ms. Parsons noted elderly kinship caregivers often are living on Social Security or have limited incomes.
"The financial burden is tremendous. It takes a lot of money to raise a child," she said. "These caregivers are often digging into retirement savings."
Ms. Hunt said that even with financial and medical aid from the state for her granddaughters, it can be a struggle. More financial help from the state would be much appreciated, she said, although she was quick to note she works hard to care for her grandchildren.
"Except for stealin' and killin' -- we as grandparents, we do what we have to do," said Ms. Hunt on a recent afternoon as she waited to pick up one of her granddaughters.
Jack Frech, job and family services director in Athens County, who is a persistent critic of some state and federal welfare policies, said the state doesn't do enough to support families in kinship situations.
More than half the state's welfare caseload -- 57 percent of families in the program -- are "child-only cases," typically grandparents or other relatives raising grandchildren.
Those statistics mirror figures nationally; almost half of welfare cases are child-only, according to a recent report from the Urban Institute.
Mr. Frech also said he believes the rise in the number of kinship caregiver families is because of general economic hardship and putative welfare policies that make it harder for parents to get financial assistance.
"I think we have to give [kinship caregiver families] more money to raise these kids on," he said, citing the fact that foster parents receive far more funds to raise foster children than most kinship families get to raise grandchildren or other relatives.
That's true in the case of Mr. Jenkins; he receives just more than $500 a month in benefits to help him support three children; a foster parent would get several hundred dollars per child monthly.
"I wish that they would assess the cost -- the true assessment of the cost of raising a child," he lamented. "The clothing, the food, per child. Especially when you have limited employment."
Agreeing with him was Eugene King, director of the Ohio Poverty Law Center in Columbus, a group that advocates for policies that benefit low-income people. "Children don't live alone. Children live in families. We need to support the whole family."
Added Ms. Parsons, "You may not realize your next-door neighbor is a kinship caregiver. You may see someone at the grocery store, and assume it's their child when it is their niece. A lot of people don't realize how prevalent kinship care has become."
For more information about assistance for relative caregivers, call Kinship Navigator at 419-725-7042.
Contact Kate Giammarise at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6091.