Family members participating in the care and raising of children is a long-held tradition in our country. However, the reasons for the current trend towards grandparent-headed households are a reflection of contemporary problems.
Parental substance abuse, incarceration, serious physical and mental illness, abuse and neglect, and disability are contributing to a massive shift in who is caring for children in the U.S., especially in Kentucky.
An astonishing 2.7 million grandparents in America are now responsible for raising their grandchildren. According to Kentucky Youth Advocates, a non-profit organization that focuses on ensuring equity for vulnerable children and families, especially lower-income, minority, and otherwise disadvantaged youth, the Commonwealth has the highest rate of “kinship care” in the country. A related group, the Kinship Families Coalition of Kentucky says there are 56,000 kids being raised by grandparents in the Bluegrass State.
Sadly, drugs are a big impetus for the shift. Kentucky has seen a shocking rise in heroin use, and the epidemic is largely to blame for a rise in the need for “grand families.” Northern Kentucky in particular has been impacted by a public health epidemic of epic proportions. A troubling 1 in 3 in the region people know a heroin user.
From a public policy perspective, grandparents are contributing to the greater societal good and providing a safety net for children who would otherwise go into foster care. The continuity in care within the family is less traumatic, provides for fewer educational disruptions, and fewer behavioral problems than foster care. There are also significant cost-savings to taxpayers when kin (such as grandparents) raise the children.
However, Kentucky can be doing more to empower grandparents and make the most of the difficult societal issue of failing parents and broken homes.
Since April of 2013, no new families have been able participate in the State’s Kinship Care Program, which provides modest financial support to grandparents and other relatives who are raising children who have been removed from their biological parents’ care. Funding was frozen and has not been restored. The General Assembly must change this equation.
Grandparents in the Commonwealth, who do not hold legal custody by way of formal adoption or guardianship of their grandchild, are not necessarily allowed to be involved in the grandchild’s care in the eyes of educators and medical providers. The General Assembly passed a kinship caregiver authorization law in 2014 that opened a better pathway for grandparents and other caregivers to legally obtain health care treatment, educational services, and school enrollment for children. However, it is still a difficult process to navigate.
The Commonwealth would also be wise devote more resources to educating grandparents on the differences between guardianship, custody, and adoption. Each comes with different benefits and privileges. Whether a grandparent has guardianship, custody, or has formally adopted the child directly affects the permanency and stability of the child’s home life, schooling, and mental health. Diverting to a relative placement is not always a permanent resolution.
Grandparents are stepping up to the plate for children. Kentucky would be wise to stand up for them.
Allison Russell is a Family Law attorney with Goldberg Simpson. Her primary practice focuses on divorces, adoptions, custody, and grandparent visitation. Mrs. Russell frequently travels around the state lecturing on the topic of grandparents’ rights. Prior to becoming an attorney, she served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for abused and neglected children. She can be reached at email@example.com.