by Michelle Chen
- USA -
One question had burned in her mind all that time: “Why didn’t you come get me?”
After spending years living in the homes of strangers, Andreah Moyer finally found her way back to her grandfather at the age of seventeen.
For her first eight years, Moyer’s grandparents helped raise her in rural Iowa. But her parents’ substance abuse eventually forced the household apart. Moyer and her two brothers were swept into the state’s foster care system, and she spent most of her adolescence isolated from her family. By the time she left foster care in her late teens, Moyer had bounced through more than 15 state-funded substitute homes.
After they reunited, her grandfather told her that throughout those years, her grandparents desperately wanted her back home again. But as a farm family living on a fixed income, they were convinced their hearts stretched beyond their means.
"They wanted to and they felt bad,” she recalls, “but they knew they couldn't afford it.”
Things would have been different, Moyer says, if the state had found a way to help her grandparents care for her and her brothers, instead of paying strangers to temporarily replace their parents.
Moyer’s family disintegrated in foster care. Her brothers were relatively lucky, adopted by a foster family early on; however, Moyer, an older child, was passed onto other “placements.” Some foster caregivers were supportive and loving, but to others, she was just a way to bring in cash and was treated coldly.
And the system continues to linger in Moyer’s life. Earning a college degree at 29, she is making up for years of disrupted schooling. Meanwhile, she has taken on the family responsibilities that her grandparents, now deceased, were never able to see through: she is raising a half-brother whom her father left behind when he went to prison.
Reflecting on her separation from her grandfather, Moyer says, “I felt cheated out of all of those years with him and the rest of my family.”
With stories like Moyer’s clogging foster-care case files, advocates say child-welfare policies must be restructured to protect children without uprooting families and communities.
‘Who loves you?’
Foster care was designed as a short-term last resort for kids with no other options – whose families were struggling with violence, drugs or mental illness, or were simply too poor to raise them. But critics say the system too often does more harm than good. Today, over half a million kids are in foster care. Many spend their childhoods drifting from one house to another, saddled with long-term emotional and social trauma.
One first step toward reforming the beleaguered system might be the expansion of “kinship care” – placing children with relatives when parents cannot care for them.
Ben Wolf, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois who has worked on child-welfare cases, says that for kids caught up in the system, relative care provides an essential sense of family identity.
He says, “the first thing you should ask a child is: ‘Who loves you?’ ‘Who can help you best maintain your bonds, both with your community and with your family?’ It's much more likely that a relative is going to make the child feel like they're a part of something.”
The Kinship Caregiver Support Act, introduced earlier this year by Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York), would make federal subsidies available to relatives who become permanent legal guardians to foster children. It would also give states more flexibility to simplify licensing requirements for relative-run foster homes.
Currently, most federal child-welfare funds go to maintain stranger-run foster homes, or to subsidize families who adopt foster children. The financing system leaves out legal guardians. But advocates say that subsidizing guardianship is key for establishing more permanent homes. While state and local funding policies vary, many relative caregivers rely on monthly foster care payments to make ends meet. Becoming a permanent guardian might mean losing hundreds of dollars a month in assistance, forcing relatives to choose between family bonds and economic stability.
Keeping it in the family
Relative foster care has grown since the 1980s to encompass nearly a quarter of the foster-youth population - about 124,000 kids, according to federal data. Nationwide, over two million children live under relatives’ care without parents, including households outside the foster care system.Recent studies on kinship foster care indicate that kids placed with relatives generally have more contact with birth parents when possible and are less likely to shift to different homes. Moreover, relatives share a familiar culture and language.
Yet according to research by the liberal think tank Urban Institute, compared to non-relative foster parents, kin caregivers face additional challenges: they are usually older and poorer, with worse health and lower education levels.
Advocates view subsidized guardianship as a crucial alternative mid-way between parental and kin relations. Becoming a guardian enables relative caregivers to solidify their authority without officially taking over the parent’s role, which could create tension in the family.
Rose Canales, 62, a retired medical assistant in Union City, near San Francisco, is as close to being a mother to her 15 year-old nephew Michael as she could ever be. She began raising him ten years ago, when her sister Theresa’s substance abuse pushed Michael and his siblings into public custody. Canales became Michael’s guardian under California’s Kin-GAP program, which provided a formal legal bond as well as a crucial supplement to the family’s modest income.
Canales says she wanted Michael to have a permanent home with her after seeing what happened to his older sister Desiree: shuffling through various foster homes, she became emotionally scarred and alienated from the family in her teens.
“I wanted stability, and I wanted a structured life,” Canales says. “Stick it out, and just have that child stay in one place with the family.”
Yet Michael’s maternal ties remained a delicate issue. He clung to Theresa as a young boy, Canales recalls, planting himself by the door awaiting her visit. Hopes of reunification vanished tragically when Theresa lost her struggle with substance abuse in 1999.
Later, given the choice of being adopted, Canales says, Michael told her, “‘Please don't think that it's because I don't love you. I do. But I really want my mom's last name.’”
“He still felt that connection,” she says, “especially after she died.”
Subsidized guardianship opens the door to co-parenting
Guardianship enabled Jaunice Johnson, 46, of Chicago to hold onto her role as a mother after crippling depression made her unable to care for her children. Chrissy, Debra and Robert were initially placed in foster care with their godparents. But over time, Jaunice recalls, she sensed that the children were troubled and discovered their caregivers were physically abusing them. Jaunice’s sister Carol then took custody of the children and became their guardian under Illinois’s subsidized-guardianship program.
The sisters “co-parented” the children through their middle- and high-school years while Jaunice underwent treatment. Today, the extended family continues to move forward together: as Robert and Debra pursue college degrees, Jaunice, who considers herself recovered, is working toward hers.
As a guardian, “[Carol] was not looking to take my children,” says Jaunice. “She was willing to take custody of them so that they could be nurtured back to health, and that I would be able to be with them and be their mother again.”
Guardianship also liberated Jaunice from oversight by caseworkers. State foster care authorities typically place tedious restrictions on caregivers, such as requiring approval for out-of-state vacations or parental visits.
While the government has instituted broad surveillance to ensure foster children’s safety, critics say it often creates needless hassles for close relatives providing long-term care. They also warn that the system might apply protective measures unevenly: in Jaunice’s case, restrictions on contact with her children made it harder to detect their mistreatment in foster care.
Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, an advocacy group representing grandparent caregivers, says that under the rigid rules of foster care, “it's the extra bureaucracy and intrusiveness that keeps the grandparents from doing what grandparents and parents do well, which is raise children.”
Fostering kinship and community
A few states have experimented with federal guardianship subsidies through specially authorized “demonstration” projects. The results so far suggest supported guardianship could move thousands of kin foster families toward stable independence.
Under Illinois’s project, about ten thousand children have moved from long-term foster care into subsidized guardianship since 1997. A controlled study of foster families by the Children and Family Research Center found that over a five-year period, around 17 percent of kinship homes entered permanent guardianship, and the program maintained a remarkable safety record. Other children were adopted or returned to their birth parents.However, reformers see guardianship as just one part of the deeper shift in policy priorities that is needed: federal funding should focus not on temporary care, but on family-based social services, like housing programs or mental-health treatment.
Marc Cherna, director of Allegheny County’s Department of Human Services in Pennsylvania, cautions, “the federal financing mechanism is broken and needs to be overhauled.”
Allegheny is not waiting for Capitol Hill. Joining many other communities nationwide, the county pursues foster care reform independently by investing in measures to help families adequately care for their children.
The department prioritizes kinship care over stranger foster care whenever possible, and uses state and county funds to support kin who become guardians. The main goal, however, is to keep at-risk families out of the system altogether by providing services and financial support through community-based organizations. Minimizing foster care has saved the county millions of dollars, in turn driving reinvestment in preventative services.
Reform advocates say policymakers must also address institutional inequalities in foster care.
Mike Arsham, executive director of the New York-based advocacy group Child Welfare Organizing Project, says agencies have historically targeted families in low-income households and communities of color, assuming that children must be removed to be “protected.”
“The premise and practice of foster care,” he says, “runs in direct contradiction to the cultural traditions and survival strategies of many of these families,” which are rooted in extended social networks common throughout black, native and immigrant communities.
Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, says the placement of Native children in non-tribal foster homes has undermined generations of indigenous communities. But the pending kinship-care bill, he adds, coupled with broader reforms to give tribes more control over child-welfare funding, could help repair the social damage.
“The ability to support extended families as substitute care providers would support the cultural identity so important to the self-esteem and well-being of our children,” he says.
But while the push for systemic change gathers momentum, limited federal resources are running just as thin as ever. The congressionally authorized program for sponsoring demonstration projects, such as Illinois’s subsidized-guardianship initiative, recently expired. And the limited government support kinship caregivers do receive may not be enough. Researchers in Illinois found that over 60 percent of relative caregivers had trouble getting by on their subsidies, which averaged only about $440 a month.
Still, whatever hardships they face, many kinship families cannot imagine life without the challenge.
"Keeping the family together and making that sacrifice – it really is a big experience, and I thank God for it,” said Canales. “It's not always easy, but the rewards are really great.”
- November is National Adoption Month. To find out more about the expansion of kinship programs, visit Kids Are Waiting - a project by the Pew National Trust. To learn more about children who need loving homes internationally, visit the The National Adoption Council.
About the Author Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Formerly on staff at the independent, now-defunct, news publication, The NewStandard, her other recent occupations include living in Shanghai as a Fulbright research fellow, freelance writing and dish-washing. Her work has also appeared in Extra!, Legal Affairs, City Limits and Alternet, along with her self-published zine, cain.