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Kinship care law deserves attention

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  • Kinship care law deserves attention,1793563.colum

    Kinship care law deserves attention
    Published August 28 2004

    Tamara Dietrich

    When readers learned of a Newport News woman who took up the challenge of
    raising nine abandoned nieces and nephews on a mere $479 a month and food
    stamps from the state, they overwhelmingly stepped up to the plate - food,
    clothing, school supplies, donations to a special fund.

    It was a compassionate outpouring that showed in real terms the strong
    heartbeat of this community.

    But when the food is eaten, the clothing worn out, the school supplies used up,
    the donations spent, Carolyn Bowen of Newport News will be back to square one.
    Parceling out pennies, scratching up the next meal for 10, fretting over the
    electric bill.

    By nobody's definition is this the way things ought to be.

    When a stranger takes in a child to foster, the state is grateful and pays for
    services rendered. When a relative does it, the state is grateful and barely
    pays attention.

    "We give lip service in Virginia about caring about children, but I don't think
    we look at the long-term outcome when children are forced to live in poverty,"
    says state Sen. Yvonne Miller, D-Norfolk. Miller is a champion of kinship care
    legislation in the General Assembly.

    "These nine children are very fortunate because they're with somebody that
    loved them and wanted to keep them out of the foster care system," Miller says.
    "A lot of children are not so blessed. So what we need to do is very seriously
    look at how we can undergird family members and others who are willing to raise
    children but they really don't have the (finances) and the housing that they

    Nobody knows for sure how many children in this country are being raised by
    relatives. The best estimate is 6 million, or 1 in every 12 children in the
    U.S. In Virginia, it's 108,000 children, or 1 in 16. Everyone agrees those
    numbers are most likely low.

    "A lot of people just don't report that they're raising their grandkids," says
    Gail Vaden, coordinator for the Grandparents and Relatives of Parents Program
    through Catholic Charities of Hampton Roads. "A lot of time they're ashamed of
    it all, the guilt that may come with it, feeling that they haven't done as well
    with their adult son or daughter."

    Increasingly, Vaden says, parents are checking out of their children's lives
    via drug addiction or incarceration, as in Bowen's family.

    "This leaves the grandparents and relatives in a whirlwind because it looks
    like they're going to be raising their grandkids until they're grown," she
    says. "They don't see the hope in it."

    But small beacons of hope exist, and Yvonne Miller is one of them. This year
    she introduced a bill that would pay foster care-like subsidies to kinship
    caregivers. The Senate passed it unanimously. The House passed it
    overwhelmingly. The governor signed it. It was set to take effect July 1.

    It didn't. The hitch?

    Come time to pay the bill, it seems nobody brought a wallet. The law could take
    effect only if the state appropriated money and received federal funds, too.
    Neither happened.

    Lip service.

    Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia already have subsidized
    guardianship programs. Illinois just evaluated its much-praised program and
    found it a rousing - and cost-neutral - success. A foster care population cut
    in half between 1997 and 2002. Adoptions from foster care more than doubled.
    Assisted guardianship gave permanent homes to 6,800 foster children.

    You'd think Virginia lawmakers would be clamoring to fund our own success

    "There is some resistance, too," Miller says. "There are people who say this is
    not 'family friendly.' I don't understand how they say that, because children
    who are in foster care have cut all ties to their families and many of them
    feel rootless. But those being raised by their grandparents are able to stay
    connected with their culture."

    She believes the strong votes for her kinship care bill mean a stronger chance
    of getting funds when the Department of Social Services submits its budget next

    A bonus, she says, is the Social Services commissioner himself, who knows
    kinship care intimately.

    "I was raised by my grandparents," explains Commissioner Maurice Jones, "so for
    me this is sound public policy, but it also resonates with my personal
    experience. I love kinship care. For me, it was and is my reality. It's part of
    who I am."

    Raised on a farm in rural southern Virginia by a grandmother who completed high
    school and a grandfather schooled for six years in a barn during the dark days
    of Jim Crow, Jones was smart and ambitious enough to earn a Rhodes scholarship
    to Oxford, then a law degree from the University of Virginia. Today he's not
    only a state commissioner, but does double duty as deputy chief of staff to
    Gov. Mark Warner.

    "The case to be made on this subject is pretty compelling," Jones says.
    "Kinship care is happening right now across the state. This is our opportunity
    as a state to help these loved ones who are basically raising our future."

    A front-end investment in children now, he says, means paying less on the back
    end for things like remedial education, welfare and incarceration.

    Next year, Jones wants lawmakers to approve a formalized kinship care program
    and, ultimately, funding. His program would offer not just subsidies but an
    important resource network and guidance.

    "But we've got to build a consensus for that," Jones says. "We're not there

    The budgetary climate has him optimistic - the state had a surprise surplus
    this year.

    Another cause for optimism is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate
    last month by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; and
    Thomas Daschle, D-S.D.

    The Kinship Caregiver Support Act would help families navigate the system to
    apply for housing assistance, locate childcare, enroll children in school and
    access other services. It would also provide foster care-like subsidies.

    "There's certainly a lot of support for it on the Hill," says Sarah Feinberg,
    Daschle's press secretary. "It's a good, strong, common-sense piece of

    A crucial hurdle is getting a fair hearing in the Finance Committee, says
    Catherine Brown, legislative assistant to Clinton. Luckily enough, Snowe is on
    that committee.

    Since 1990, the number of grandparents raising grandkids has increased 20
    percent. Twenty percent of those families live in poverty. The time is now for
    lawmakers both in Washington and in Richmond to decide if they're the
    intellectual heirs of Jefferson or mere penny-wise politicians who couldn't
    find a compassionate heartbeat with both hands and a stethoscope.

    A good friend will come and bail you out of jail . . . but, a true friend will
    be sitting next to you saying, "**** . . . that was fun!"
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