On a Friday afternoon in 2005, at about 3 p.m., Mickey Mauck, then 55, got a call from a child-protective-services agent informing her that her granddaughter had been taken into care, and asking if she could come pick her up. Mauck told her boss that she needed to leave, and drove 23 miles across Denver (in traffic) to fetch Briana, then 18 months old. “She had a diaper and one sock,” says Mauck. “And that's it. They gave me a borrowed car seat from the office.”
Mauck wasn’t told what her son or his girlfriend had done to lose their child, but she knew her son already had a child who had been adopted by another family. She and her husband thought they’d look after Briana for a few months. “All of us grandparents think that,” says Mauck, who now runs a peer-support group for grandparents in a similar position. “It's like, ‘Oh, of course I'll take her in. I'll talk to [the parents] and tell them what they need to do. Two months at the most, they'll be back on their feet and they'll have the child back.” Briana is now 20, and lived with the Maucks for most of her life.
Briana’s story is not that unusual. In 2018, according to the Government Accounting Office, 2.7 million children whose parents were unable to care for them lived with relatives, usually grandparents. But only 139,000 of these kids were officially in foster care, meaning they lived with licensed foster parents. The American Community Survey puts the number a bit lower, but still too high: in 2022, it estimated that just under a million children were being cared for solely by grandparents. In any case, the number of children in danger of being separated from their parental homes is robust; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reported about 600,000 cases of what it calls “child maltreatment” in 2021, the most recent year for which figures are available.
“We had nothing,” when Briana arrived, says Mauck. “I had an extra bedroom. But I had no baby stuff.” A local charity, Family Tree, supported them with one month’s mortgage payment. “They got us a bed, a desk, linens, and they paid the electricity bill,” says Mauck. Despite that, she was so busy with Briana’s doctors' visits, court visits, and court-ordered family visits to each parent and the other set of grandparents that she had to switch to a part-time job. Things got tight. She applied for Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) payments, but because the Maucks’ combined income put them above the income threshold, only Briana was eligible, and the payments were small. Mauck says she got $127. Then the 2007 financial crisis came, the Maucks were overextended, and the family lost their home to foreclosure.
When people take in and raise a child who has no relation to them, they are supported by fellow taxpaying Americans with what’s known as Foster Care Maintenance Payments. This makes fiscal sense, because raising a child is expensive and exhausting—more so if the child is traumatized—and people who are willing to open their homes should not be financially penalized. It ultimately saves public money, and studies suggest single-family homes are almost always better for the children’s welfare than group homes.
But up until recently, people who took in a child who was related to them, known in the weird language of the welfare system as “kinship caregivers,” were largely excluded from this benefit. This is because it is only given to licensed foster parents, those who have been vetted and trained by a local foster-care agency. In Colorado, such parents, depending on the age and needs of the child and other factors, receive about $1,200 a month, far more than child-only TANF, which is currently $141.
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By the end of November, this will officially change. The Biden Administration has instituted a new set of rules that prompts states to “provide kinship caregivers with the same level of financial assistance that any other foster care provider receives,” by allowing child-welfare agencies to “adopt simpler licensing or approval standards” for homes where extended family is taking in a child. Effectively, HHS wants family members to be treated differently from other foster parents, who have to meet a set of quite stringent requirements to become licensed, but to be paid the same.
“This kinship rule is trying to make it really clear about the ability for states and jurisdictions to create the standards for relatives to be foster parents,” says commissioner for the Administration on Children, Youth and Families, Rebecca Jones Gaston. “The hope and intention is that we're creating some equity around how we're supporting family members caring for children that are in foster care, and supporting them in the same way that we would for a foster family that isn't related to the child.”
The new rules do not specify exactly how the licensing standards should change, but suggest such adjustments as allowing children to sleep in the same bedroom as other kids in the home and extending age limits on who can take a child in. Black and poor children are disproportionately involved in the child-welfare system, and sometimes relatives were discounted as potential foster families because they had insufficient income. Agencies may now choose to override these income minimums and also overlook such former dealbreakers as poor access to transportation, a home’s size, or potential foster parents’ low levels of literacy or education. The federal standards demand a criminal background check, but past crimes that don’t have anything to do with children may not mean an immediate disqualification.
The encouragement to streamline for relatives these conditions and the time-consuming process of meeting them is part of a big and comparatively recent pendulum swing toward keeping children close to their biological families. “That's been a radical shift really only in the past few years,” says Rita Soronen, the president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption, who’s worked in child welfare for more than three decades and is supportive, as are most foster and adoption agencies, of the new approach. “I can remember the days when literally [child protective agencies] would say, ‘No, we're not going to look at family. This child came from a bad family.’” Now, caseworkers who remove a child look first for extended family, including what’s known as “fictive kin,” people who were not related but important in the child’s life, and try to place the child there.
Studies have shown that children who are placed with relatives change homes (or “placements”) less often. “We've known for quite some time that children that are placed with kin actually have much more stable placements, move less often, and their outcomes tend to be better,” says Soronen. “And so it really is, in some ways, us catching up and finding a mechanism to be able to do it.”
This isn’t to say there aren’t issues or points of contention. If a parent wants to see their children, or even take them back, relatives may find it hard to say no, even if that parent has been deemed dangerous by the state. It’s asking a lot of grandparents, for instance, to keep their own children away from their grandchildren. Sometimes people are less motivated to get sober when it’s family members who are housing their children. And it just seems strange, to many, to pay someone to raise their own flesh and blood, especially when there’s the possibility of abusing the system, as when a relative takes in a child and gets paid, but the child is really still in the care of his or her parent.
But in many ways, experts say, the new rules, which ACF estimates would cost the federal government $3.085 billion over 10 years, are just reflecting the situation on the ground. Because children are usually removed from parents in emergency situations, relatives and close friends—the people most likely to take the child and with whom it would be less distressing for the child to move in—are not usually licensed. “They wouldn't get the kind of financial support that a foster family gets,” says Soronen, “and so families would say, ‘I can't afford to do everything I need to do for this child. I wasn't planning to have a sibling group of three in my family.’ So it was set up to fail.”
When the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) asked for public comments on the new rule, the tales of difficulty navigating the system flooded in. A grandfather in Tennessee took in four siblings and struggled with the extra burden, some grandparents had to move back from overseas or cash in their retirement benefits, and several had to return to work to support the child they’d taken in. One family almost failed getting licensed to look after a 16-year-old granddaughter because they didn’t have, and couldn’t afford, a pool gate.
The issue of licensing has been a particular bugbear for tribal communities, says Stanley Nix, a juvenile rehabilitation counselor at the Washington State Department of Children, Youth, and Families, and a member of the Tsimshian and Haida tribes. Many families are struggling to begin with, and would have little chance of getting licensed, but they take the children in anyway. “Maybe they have their own substance-use problems, maybe they have their own employment history problems, maybe they're in a community that has very limited opportunities for upward growth,” says Nix.
Under the Indian Child Welfare Act, recently upheld by the Supreme Court, families are supposed to be the first ports of call for children who need to be fostered. But they haven’t been given the support those placements need, says Nix. Decades ago, one of his sisters took in the children of a younger sister, who was struggling with addiction, but the financial burden then meant the whole family had to move in with Nix’s mother, who had already raised eight children and barely had enough for herself.
He believes that, as long as there is training as well, the payments the new rules envision could break the cycle of impoverishment and dysfunction, especially since children age out of foster care at 18 or 21 and are often then left without parental or institutional support. “If we were to take the youth and rather than putting them into a system family, kept them with their own family, who will be there forever, not just until they turn 18,” he says, “and provide the support, guidance, and training around developing good healthy relationships, how does that not make sense?”
Not everyone is a fan of the new regulations. Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives, believes that “putting a thumb on the scale” so that biological families are favored may endanger children by keeping them with a family that was problematic in the first place. “Often the same kinds of dysfunction that affect the immediate family affect the extended family,” says Schaefer Riley, “and I just don't think there's any way of getting away from that.”
Many families bristle at having to be trained to look after relatives, especially if they’ve already been a big part of the children’s lives. But some commenters told the ACF they felt all foster parents, whether related or not, should be held to the same standards and undergo the same training. Schaefer Riley agrees. “A lot of these kids have been really traumatized,” she says. “Assuming that a kinship-family placement is going to be able to handle the kinds of behavior or mental-health challenges that a child has is a real problem.”
Nix’s experience has made him cautious about “automatically making the assumption that somehow the extended family hasn't been striving to be involved and provide better support and encouragement.” His family loved and worried about his sister. “If we could have held her down and stopped her from doing those things,” he says, “we would have done that.” And much of the problem, he contends, is that tribes need more institutional support to handle a crisis that poverty helped create. “They're going to be fighting and fighting and fighting over trying to find funding and support and connection,” he says, “and overwhelmed with the youth that are sitting there.”
Schaefer Riley, Nix, Soronen, and Mauck agree on some things, namely that the foster-care system is in need of an overhaul. They believe that some of the licensing guidelines are ridiculous and arbitrary, but that all foster parents could benefit from some form of training, especially given the emphasis on family reunification, which often means children are kept with their biological parents longer. This is great when the parents can emerge from their difficulties. But those children who do eventually have to be removed are more traumatized when they arrive at their relative’s house.
The Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption has been having an encouraging amount of success with a model that funds local foster and adoption agencies to hire extra staff to find extended family members, or other people with whom the child already has relationship, who might be able to take in children. "In digging through that case file you'll find former foster parents, teachers other folks that are involved in his child's life," says Soronen, "so that it doesn't have to necessarily be a stranger that steps forward."
While Mauck supports the new rule and thinks if more families can get support, that's a good thing, she is under no illusions that it's a cure-all. Even if the licensing process is simplified, says Mauck, a lot of the grandparents she helps may not want to get involved with the system, because it invites too much interference into their families. And she worries that many of them still won’t meet the requirements under the new regulations. “The rules are not set up for grandparents and kin raising children,” says Mauck. “They're set up for these really nice foster parents who say, ‘Oh, I'd like to take in a child.’ It's their choice. They talk it over. Our families are messy, or we wouldn't have these children.”
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