By Patrick Caniglia, Policy and Research Fellow, Appalachian Children Coalition
“I’m still working,” an Appalachian grandmother recently explained. “Once I retire, our income is going to be totally different. Once I retire, will I still be able to provide the same level of care for my granddaughter?”
For Scioto County resident Bev Stringer, this lingering anxiety is common. Bev has raised her granddaughter since her birth in the NICU following a premature, substance-induced labor after a relapse by her mother. Bev has had custody of her granddaughter, now 8, ever since.
Alongside questioning the future for her granddaughter, other stressors are at the front of her mind, such as:
Interacting with the schools,
Parenting her granddaughter today versus doing so one generation prior,
Understanding the technology her granddaughter must use to keep up with schooling, and
Receiving financial assistance or other benefits for which she initially had no idea her granddaughter was eligible.
These issues and more occupy a day in the life of a kinship caregiver in Appalachian Ohio.
Defining Kinship Care Today, about 239,000 Ohio children are living under the care of a relative other than their parents, with 117,000 of these youth living without any parental presence at all. With only about 7,200 licensed foster homes throughout the state, grandparents, other relatives, and fictive kin continue to step up and care for children in need.
These kinship caregivers are even more prevalent in Appalachian Ohio, where there are greater concentrations of drug overdoses and poverty. In addition to these specific issues, the region shares many obstacles that are found in rural communities across the state. In particular, a lack of access to transportation and child care stands out. Southeastern Ohio families pay approximately $1,000 more in transportation costs per year compared to the statewide average. Meanwhile, 60% of rural Ohioans live in a child care desert. Bev agreed with these regional challenges. If Bev’s sister-in-law had not been able to babysit her granddaughter during infancy, she would have had no choice but to quit working. Other prominent issues include interacting with schools and the state’s public assistance programs.
So why become a kinship caregiver? Why sacrifice your own health, retirement savings, and golden years of relaxation to care for a child who is not your own? Well, for kinship caregivers like Bev, it does not feel like much of a choice to begin with.
“She’s our only granddaughter,” Bev said. “We definitely didn’t want anyone else to take her.”
Although it may not feel like a choice, many kinship caregivers find their decisions are well worth it. “I feel very blessed,” Bev repeatedly emphasized throughout our conversation. In addition to this satisfaction and love amid the chaos for many kinship families, the research backs kinship care as the preferred option for youth who cannot live with their biological parents. Simply put, kids living with kin exhibit more positive outcomes than those living in foster homes. Living with kin can curb the trauma faced by youth and ignite the healing process.
Current Assistance and Programming Options Ohio provides limited financial support for kinship caregivers. Multiple assistance options such as the Kinship Guardianship Assistance Program, Kinship Support Program, Kinship Permanency Incentive Program, and child-only Temporary Assistance for Needy Families provide cash assistance for kinship caregivers based on the custody status of the children in their care. However, these options are each less than half of the amount that licensed foster parents receive. Meanwhile, many grandparents caring for their grandchildren are also living on a fixed income, unable to return to the workforce even if they wanted to due to age or health complications.
All these different assistance options provide limited financial support, are explained little by case managers, and are difficult to access, especially for kinship caregivers working through the application processes for the first time. Bev received some cash assistance for her granddaughter without knowing she was eligible for it or where it came from, and was only informed about the assistance by caseworkers well after she had received custody of her granddaughter. “I just thought that because I work, my granddaughter wasn’t eligible for anything,” Bev said. “She was also eligible for a medical card. I had no idea.”
What Comes Next? Perhaps one of the easiest solutions in supporting the state’s kinship caregivers will be the most difficult to achieve. Specifically, increasing and streamlining kinship care financial assistance would help prevent kinship caregivers from facing application fatigue and missing available assistance while providing support equitable to that received by licensed foster families.
Secondly, outreach is also a major component in increasing the rates of eligible kinship caregivers receiving assistance. For example, making it mandatory for all local job and family service departments and children's services offices to actively share all available kinship caregiver assistance options would likely improve utilization rates. Currently, statewide initiatives such as the Ohio Kinship and Adoption Navigator are working to fill that void by connecting caregivers in need with available services. Ensuring case managers refer kinship caregivers to available resources from the start will prevent detrimental gaps for transitioning families.
However, Bev noted that improving financial assistance alone is not enough to buoy kinship caregivers in need of support. “It would be great to have a club to meet and talk about their challenges and how they’re doing,” she said. Throughout her experience raising her granddaughter, Bev said she has asked herself many times, “Am I going to be able to do this?”
Kinship caregiver support groups offer essential spaces for caregivers to air out their concerns while sharing their success stories. Within Appalachian Ohio, in-person support groups are rare because of a lack of access to child care and transportation. Statewide organizations such as the Ohio Grandparent/Kinship Coalition and Ohio Kinship Caregivers Connect offer monthly and weekly support groups online, respectively. However, county-level support group programming, such as Healthy Grandfamilies by the West Virginia State University Extension, offers even more localized support while being further embedded in communities.
As Bev summed up her experience raising her granddaughter, she laughed and emphasized knowingly, “It sure takes a village.” Throughout our conversation, Bev was not hesitant to discuss the struggles of raising her granddaughter. However, she repeatedly expressed her appreciation for the additional support she did not initially realize she truly needed. For children like Bev’s granddaughter to get the support they need to grow and thrive, it will likely take a collection of solutions to ensure these youth do not fall through the cracks. It takes a village to raise a child, and the state can and should improve its system to lift up its villagers. The impact of this change would transform outcomes for the state’s most vulnerable children.
About the Appalachian Children Coalition
The Appalachian Children Coalition is an alliance of behavioral health, education, and social service professionals from the Appalachian region seeking public and private solutions to our region’s most acute needs. Every child deserves equal access to support services to help them grow into happy, productive adults.
To contact the Appalachian Children Coalition, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
With questions or comments regarding this blog post, feel free to reach out to Patrick Caniglia at email@example.com. We look forward to hearing from and working alongside you.