Increasingly, children are being raised by persons other than their biological parents. Six million children in the United States live in grandparent or other relative-maintained households, according to the U.S. Census.1 Nationwide this represents a 30 percent increase, more than one million additional children, since 1990.2 In Minnesota, over 71,000 children live in kinship households: 47,679 children live in grandparent-headed households,3 and 23,911 live in households headed by close family friends and relatives other than grandparents.4 Traditionally, grandparents took on the caregiving responsibilities when their adult children were unable to parent. Currently, however, maternal aunts are the fastest-growing group of kinship caregivers in the United States.
The term "kinship caregiver" means any relative or close family friend who is caring for children not his or her own. Kinship caregiving can be either temporary or permanent, formal or informal. Kinship caregiving is formal if the relative is a licensed foster care provider, and the children were placed with the relative either by a court order or by a voluntary agreement between the county child protection agency and the parent. It is informal if the arrangements have been made by the family, and either the parent or the caregiver has legal custody. Eighty-five percent of children in kinship care live in informal kinship care, and 15 percent in formal.
The crack addiction epidemic, incarceration of single mothers, alcoholism, mental health problems, teenage pregnancy, death of a parent, divorce, poverty, and increased incidents of women with AIDS has resulted in more and more children living with kin. These numbers are expected to increase in the next decade, and more services, funding, and legal representation will be needed to meet the needs of the kinship caregivers and the children in their care.
Kinship families are formed in a variety of ways. Some grandparents begin helping their troubled adult children by providing weekend child care. Over time, the duration of care becomes longer until finally the grandparent is caring for the grandchild on a full-time basis, and the parent shows up only when he or she needs sleep or money. Some relatives go to the hospital to visit a newborn and end up taking the child home because he or she was born crack-addicted and the county will not allow the child to go home with the parent. Others must provide care for the child right from birth because the parents are mentally ill or are teenagers and simply cannot or will not take on the responsibility for the child. Others become caregivers at the death of a parent who was terminally ill and who made a permanency plan prior to death. Others suddenly find themselves caregivers of kin at the death or incarceration of a parent.
A major problem for many kinship families is that they do not have the legal authority to make decisions for or to protect the children in their care. Without legal custody or a formal delegation of authority to the kinship caregiver, a kinship caregiver may not be able to obtain medical treatment, enroll the children in school, or participate in the development of an Individual Education Plan (IEP) for children with disabilities. Further, without legal custody the kinship caregiver will have difficulty protecting the child from a parent who has not yet resolved the problem which led to placement in the kinship home in the first place. Kinship caregivers report that they cannot find or afford an attorney to advise them about their rights and responsibilities as kinship caregivers, or to represent them to obtain custody of the children in their care.
In addition, kinship caregivers frequently face significant financial burdens. Some must quit their jobs in order to care for the children because they cannot afford child care. Retirement or other savings are depleted not only by the added expense of raising a child, but also by the children's parents, who are often still dependent. Court costs associated with proceedings concerning custody, guardianship, and adoption can also create a financial strain.
The children may have physical and/or mental health problems as a result of parental drug and alcohol abuse. They may have emotional problems as a result of separation from their parents. The children's parents typically escalate the problem by drifting in and out of their lives, causing confusion and disruption. Some of the children are embarrassed when their peers tease them because they are being cared for by older persons. A large number of the children are also behind academically because they missed school while living with their parents. These children may have a hard time concentrating because they constantly worry about their parents. They also worry that they will be abandoned again, this time by their kinship caregiver.
Finally, the kinship caregiver may suffer stress-related illnesses, and neglect their own health while caring for the children. Those who were looking forward to retirement find themselves suddenly thrust back into the world of child-rearing, their dreams of relaxation and freedom from work destroyed. Further, grandparents often find that having young children around the house means that they no longer fit in with friends their own age, and they begin to feel isolated. They may feel resentment and at the same time guilt because they think they have failed their own children.
The first edition of this manual was published in 1995 to address legal solutions to problems kinship caregivers face, and to provide information about the public benefits, medical coverage, support groups and services available to kinship families, as well as how to go about securing those benefits and finding those resources. It was updated in 1998, in 2003, and now updated in 2008 due to the changes in the law concerning third party custody proceedings in family and juvenile courts and changes in public benefits programs. Further, the 2003 edition is necessary to provide up-to-date information regarding the expanding network of services available to kinship caregivers. We hope that this manual, along with emerging statewide advocacy groups and support groups, will serve to address some of the legal and financial challenges kinship caregivers face performing the extraordinary task of raising children who for whatever reason can no longer live with their parents.