HUNTINGTON — Imagine you are 60 years old. You’ve worked your whole life and are preparing for something every working person looks forward to — retirement.
But then something happens to your child. Maybe she has a substance use disorder, or maybe he fell on hard times financially. No matter the circumstances, you are now faced with raising your grandchild, potentially a decade or more since you’ve been actively parenting.
That is the circumstance grandparents, great-grandparents, and even other family and friends are facing as more children are taken into state custody and placed in foster care across the country.
“Some are taking care of children when they haven’t in 40 years,” said Brian Hankins, a state social worker who worked with Wayne County’s Healthy Grandfamilies group. “A lot has happened in 40 years. The 1970s versus now? Way different.”
Between 2011 and 2017, the nation’s reliance on kin to care for foster children rose 43.5 percent, according to data compiled by the Chronicle of Social Change. At the same time, West Virginia’s rate rose 136 percent.
With the country now working under the Family First Prevention Services Act and West Virginia independently working toward reducing the number of children in congregate care at the direction of the Department of Justice — along with the fact that the number of children in the child welfare system doesn’t appear to be declining anytime soon — experts believe the nation’s and West Virginia’s reliance on kin will only continue to increase. Thankfully, officials say more resources may be on the way to assist those families.
At the end of October, 3,518 of the 6,996 foster children in West Virginia were living with kin, which could be blood relatives or someone close to the child, like a family friend, teacher or church member.
Nearly 61 percent of those kinship caregivers have opted to become certified foster parents, which means they can receive a boarding payment from the state. The remaining families are uncertified.
Uncertified homes still go through a background and home check, but they don’t do the training and licensure required to receive the boarding payment. Uncertified kinship caregivers can still receive assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program, and get services and assistance from the state that other foster families receive.
“One beautiful thing about Family First is kids do not have to enter foster care — a lot of kids still legally belong to their parents, but they have active cases,” said Laura Barno, Family First implementation director for West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services. “With Family First, relative kin that assist parents and work with the family to correct the issue can also have services provided to them.”
Barno said West Virginia was already a little more liberal with its funding to provide services to relatives and caretakers.
“We are not the traditional families we once were,” she said. “Grandparents are a very important support for families these days.”
To receive state support, though, the child has to be at immediate risk of being placed in the custody of the state.
According to the Chronicle data, the number of families caring for a child that were not receiving payment from a child welfare agency rose 25 percent from 2011 to 2017. In West Virginia, it rose 84 percent.
Part of this may be due to what some child welfare experts call the hidden foster care system.
In a Standford Law Review piece, University of South Carolina associate professor of law Josh Gupta-Kagan refers to hidden foster care as when Child Protective Services agents remove a child from their parents without oversight from the court system. Gupta-Kagan writes that while informal custody changes sometimes serve children’s and parents’ interests by preventing state legal custody, there is far greater risk that the rights of families are being infringed upon. He says new federal regulations are giving the stamp of approval to this unregulated system.
“This Article’s concern is that, absent legal regulation, the status quo gives CPS agencies tremendous power to determine the unusual case in which hidden foster care is appropriate,” Gupta-Kagan writes. “Given the weighty stakes involved and the state power exercised, more procedural protections than are currently provided should be required.”
Barno said she does think something like this is happening in West Virginia, though not because of CPS. Based on child abuse and neglect history checks, Barno said it is clear a lot of relatives are going through the family court system to get infant guardianships. She called it an off-the-record child welfare system.
“What happens when you divert through that avenue, sometimes the parental interest is not protected,” she said.
In a CPS case in the circuit court system, parents are granted representation and there are procedures in place to protect families, she said. In family court, there is no improvement plan because family courts don’t have the jurisdiction to enforce them.
She said while this may work for some families, it is not ideal for others. These families also cannot receive state support because they do not have an open child welfare case.
Even without financial support, there is moral support out there for all who find themselves caring for a loved one.
Healthy Grandfamilies is a free initiative led by West Virginia State University to provide information and resources to grandparents who are raising one or more grandchildren. The program is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Initially designed as a nine-week program, some areas of the state have continued a support group from there, including Putnam County.
Donald and Sharron Schmitt started attending Putnam County Schools’ Healthy Grandfamilies program when it started in 2018 after being informed about it by their grandson’s guidance counselor. They have attended nearly all of the meetings since.
The Schmitts were in their early 60s when they got custody of their now-11-year-old grandson.
“We were the natural people to step in and take over,” Sharron Schmitt said. “There wasn’t a thought of doing anything else. It’s what we felt and what we wanted to do.”
Donald Schmitt said it is a different age than when they raised their two daughters.
“The internet makes so much more information available,” he said. “The first two didn’t have any of that — maybe some video games. Now the internet and electronic devices present a whole new challenge. It’s all come so fast that it takes time to learn the ins and outs.
“What this group provided was some help in bringing us up to speed, resources and how it all works, and what the dangers are. I suspect looking at the people that come, probably a lot are in the same situation.”
Hankins, who worked with programs in Wayne and Cabell counties, said along with parenting in 2019, many of the group participants are dealing with poverty, stigma, and their own grief and emotions.
One woman he met said on a scale from 1 to 10, her stress level was a 10.5. She was dealing with grief because she hadn’t seen her daughter in 10 months and didn’t know where she was, but at the same time, she was angry with her for the state she found her grandchildren in. She wanted help with time management and how to discipline.
These families also need help navigating the child welfare system.
“Oftentimes, in the emergency of the moment, a CPS worker may go in and place a child with grandparents but may not immediately loop back to tell them you can apply for TANF, get a clothing allowance and all those things caregivers need,” Barno said. “Navigating the child welfare system is not natural for everyone.”
For years, states have been able to receive grants for kinship navigator programs, but those funds will expire in a year. The Family First clearinghouse is evaluating evidence-based kinship programs that open funding back up for those programs.
The Schmitts said they recommend attending a Healthy Grandfamilies program, even if you are not a grandparent but an aunt or uncle, or any other type of kinship caregiver. They said the camaraderie is very helpful.
To find a Healthy Grandfamilies program in your area, visit healthygrandfamilies.com.