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“Kinship care” is defined by the Pennsylvania KinConnector as “the full-time care, nurturing and protection of children by relatives or any adult who has a ‘kinship’ bond with the children.”

In 2020, the organization Generations United reported that 8 million children are living with a relative as the head of the household, nationwide. Among them, 2.7 million children are raised by relatives without parental presence. In Pennsylvania, there are about 239,000 children under 18 who live in homes where householders are grandparents (80%) or other relatives.

According to the 2019 GrandFacts State Fact Sheets, found online at the website grandfamilies.org, approximately 89,000 grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren in Pennsylvania, and 33% of them provide care without having the children’s parents present in the home.

The Children’s Defense Fund states that “kinship care families are everywhere. Across the country, millions of grandparents and other relatives have stepped forward to care for children whose parents are unable or unwilling to raise them.”

Why do children end up in kinship care? The circumstances that cause children to be raised by kinship parents are varied. They can be social and economic problems, or health and behavior challenges of the parents (in some cases in the children).

According to the Children’s Bureau, the reasons for removing children from parents can be for any of these alone or combined with other issues listed by Children’s Bureau:

  • Housing
  • Parent death
  • Parent incarceration
  • Parental alcohol abuse
  • Parental drug abuse
  • Caretaker inability to cope
  • Physical abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Neglect
  • Abandonment
  • Relinquishment
  • Child behavior problem
  • Child disability
  • Drug abuse (child)
  • Alcohol abuse (child)

Whether these caregiving changes were expected or not, transitioning into a new caregiving role is not easy. For grandparents, balancing between work and raising children for the second time, and dealing with financial situations and emotional needs can be daunting. Every family situation is unique, but there are some challenges that most new kinship parents must deal with.

Legal Decisions

“Going to court to obtain legal custody or guardianship of a child can be adversarial, expensive and emotionally difficult for the caregiver, the child, and the child’s parents,” writes Mary Bissell and Mary Lee Allen in their 2001 report, “Healthy Ties: Ensuring Health Coverage for Children Raised by Grandparents and Other Relatives.”

Kinship parents need to make legal decisions about whether to become informal or formal caregivers. Navigating the legal systems can be confusing, and most of the time, requires a lawyer to help understand all legal ramifications and options (adoption, legal custody or guardianship). Everyone wants the best for the child or children, but it can take time to reach an agreement.

Financial Planning

According to the GrandFacts State Fact Sheets, it is alarming that 20% of grandparent-headed families live in poverty in Pennsylvania. Even if the grandparents have retirement savings, it is usually not covering the cost of childrearing.

The everyday expenses related to a child’s education along with extra-curricular activities as well as health care, legal fees and raised rent add up quickly. Children with special needs require even more support and specialized services.

Employment

Many of the kin caregivers in Pennsylvania are under 60 (66%), and 58% are still working, according to the GrandFacts State Fact Sheets. Those who work might need to find new ways to adjust their hours to fit their caregiving roles.

Many workplaces lack caregiving support or do not provide flexible work hours. Due to the lack of affordable child-care options for kinship families, some caregivers may leave the workforce earlier than planned to take care of children. This decision can greatly impact the family’s financial situation and increase their need for public benefits.

Housing

“Affordable housing is one of the most basic and critical needs for grandfamilies,” states Generations United in “A Place to Call Home: Building Affordable Housing for Grandfamilies.”

Issues can differ depending on where the kin lives. Here are some of the common challenges grandfamilies face:

1. Caregivers live in small apartments or houses that might be not suitable for children.

2. Paying rent might be difficult due to the unexpected expenses of raising children.

3. Senior housing units do not allow children to live with grandparents.

4. Without legal custody, caregivers cannot apply to larger apartments.

Health Care

In “Healthy Ties: Ensuring Health Coverage for Children Raised by Grandparents and Other Relatives,” Bissell and Allen wrote that “children raised by kinship caregivers may have serious physical and mental health problems that require immediate attention and sometimes long-term treatment.”

Due to the nature of private health insurance, children are usually covered by their parent’s employers. Children residing with kin without a parent’s presence are more likely to be without private health insurance than one whose parents live with them.

Kinship caregivers are not always aware of free or low-cost federal and local health insurance options that they can apply for on behalf of the child.

It would be a long list to mention all the challenges that kinship caregivers face. Every family has its own challenges, and finding the best options for everyone can be a long process. Fortunately, there is more awareness about kinship care than ever before, and many local, state and federal organizations provide resources and help for kinship families.

Grandparents and other kin caregivers are establishing support groups where they can share information and resources. These meetings help them connect with others who understand their situation and could provide extra help.

One of the biggest obstacles for the service providers is finding those families and providing them with the information and resources.

If you are a kinship care provider and want to learn more about the services available to you, contact Rozalia Horvath at 814-355-4897 or visit the Penn State Extension website on kinship care by searching online for the: “Kinship Care in Pennsylvania: Support for Families with Grandparents and Other Kin Raising Children” webpage.

Rozalia Horvath is a Penn State Extension educator in Centre County.

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