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Kinship care beats foster care for raising kids – support needed

An estimated 2.7 million children are being cared for by extended family such as grandparents and other relatives, who are likely to be poor, elderly and unemployed, according to a new Annie E. Casey Foundation report that urges new support and resources for them.

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Donna Butts of the advocacy group Generations United estimated that kinship caregivers save U.S. taxpayers more than $6 billion a year by sparing state and local governments the cost of foster care.

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"We shouldn't then just leave them alone," Butts said. "They need information, they need support, they need respite. Both the children and the caregivers need help."

Among the problems encountered by kinship caregivers, according to the Casey report:

—Many of them take on children who were abused or neglected, and are coping with the trauma of family separation.

—They sometimes lack the legal authority for enrolling a child in school or obtaining medical care.

—Though most kinship families are eligible for federal aid through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, many caregivers are unaware of this option or are reluctant to apply because of perceived stigma.

—Their eligibility for financial aid may be constricted by licensing requirements that were designed for foster parents and aren't always appropriate for kinship families. Such requirements might include foster-parent training programs and regulations pertaining to the square footage and window size in bedrooms.

"Under federal law, unless they can meet the same hypertechnical licensing requirements as strangers, they are not, in fact, entitled to the help that total strangers get," said Richard Wexler of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Among the agencies viewed as a leader in the field is greater Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Department of Human Services, which makes kinship arrangements for more than half of its children in foster care.

"It's much less traumatic if they can go to someone they know and love, and who knows them, as opposed to going to strangers, no matter how well-intentioned that stranger is," said the department's director, Marc Cherna.

The department policy is to pay kinship caregivers the same rates as other foster parents, and work with them on how to optimize the children's long-term prospects.

According to the Casey report, one in 11 American children lives in kinship care for at least three consecutive months. For black children, the ratio is one in five.

Morrisella Middleton, 62, of Baltimore, raised two of her grandchildren for many years while also working full-time as supervisor of an assisted living facility. The children's mother — Middleton's daughter — had struggled with drug problems and their father died of cancer.

It wasn't easy. Middleton went on disability after incurring congestive heart failure and hypertension, and relied almost entirely on Social Security benefits. Her grandson, Shane, also had chronic health problems related to lead poisoning, she said.

"I did not get the money like people do who are foster parents," Middleton said. "The road has not been easy, but the reward has been so very satisfying. I see the fruits of my labors."

Related: Are you a Helicopter Parent? Take our quiz and find out

Shane, now 19, recently began a job as a retail stock clerk. The granddaughter, LaQuanna, is 24 and works as a pharmacy technician.

Would Middleton advise others to consider kinship care?

"If you love these children and you want them to have a chance, then you don't have a choice," she said. "In somebody else's home, or in a group facility, they're not going to get the chance that you could give them."

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