Many grandparents raising grandkids find it’s a financial

The Bellingham Herald 4-08

The days are difficult for Thomas Paine and his 31/2-year-old granddaughter, Madison, but the moments are sweet.

Paine, who has been taking care of Madison for 21/2 years, receives only enough state assistance to pay the rent on his two-bedroom apartment. Food stamps put meals on the table, but everything else, from gas money to laundry detergent, is much harder to come by.

So most of their fun is free. They take walks at Sehome Arboretum, near their home, where Paine tells the youngster that Winnie the Pooh and Bambi live.

“We can never find them home, of course,” he said.

Like the growing number of grandparents locally and around the country, Paine, 44, has been called to raise children a second time around.

He wouldn’t trade the close relationship with Madison, but Paine has trouble supporting even himself. He’s disabled and unable to work, he said, and the financial challenges of keeping the small family afloat on $440 a month seem almost overwhelming. He’s not alone.

In Whatcom County, the number of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren appears to be increasing. There were 769 county grandparents caring for their grandchildren in the 2000 Census. A Census survey in 2006 estimated that 1,525 grandparents were taking care of their grandkids.

Drug abuse seems to have fueled the trend, with addiction derailing parents’ abilities to care for their kids.

“The meth epidemic has definitely impacted (the numbers) nationwide,” said Hilari Hauptman, who manages kinship care programs in the Aging and Adult Services Administration of the Department of Social and Health Services. “Washington state is a big state for that, unfortunately.”

Grandparents can apply for monthly assistance to help with the expenses of raising their grandkids, but a grandmother receiving a monthly Temporary Assistance to Needy Families grant for two children would typically receive about half as much as a foster parent of two.

That’s not always the case elsewhere. Some states have boosted funding for grandparents who aren’t official foster parents, and some even pay grandparents or other relative caregivers the same amount as foster parents.

Some grandparents wonder if they can become official foster parents to their grandkids, Hauptman said, but usually they can’t. If the state didn’t remove the kids from their parents’ home because of reports of abuse or neglect, the children probably aren’t eligible for foster care.

Often, it’s the grandparents’ stepping in that halts the chain of events that might have ended with the children in foster care, Hauptman said.

But unfortunately for those grandparents, the state devotes more substantial resources to the foster care system.

Care-giving grandparents in Whatcom County are typically women, and often have incomes below the poverty line, said Kim Boon, a planner for the Northwest Regional Council, which oversees programs for elderly people. Many have significant health problems of their own, she said. Their average age is 54, but many are older.

Families who meet income requirements may receive state assistance such as health insurance, monthly cash assistance or food stamps for the children, said Ronnie Sue Johnson, Bellingham’s DSHS Community Service Office administrator.

Despite the census numbers that indicate more grandparents are caring for their grandchildren, there doesn’t appear to be a growing number of them asking DSHS for assistance in Bellingham, Johnson said.

One reason could be that the state can seek reimbursement from the kids’ parents, which might discourage grandparents from applying, to avoid more conflict within the family, she said.

Also, many grandparents who have never used public assistance often don’t think to call DSHS for help, Johnson said. For example, grandparents who are working might be eligible for child-care assistance.

Judging by the requests the Opportunity Council gets for the Kinship Care Support Program – an emergency fund for local grandparents who are responsible for grandchildren – many grandparents are barely covering the basics.

The state-funded program is available for grandparents and other relatives who aren’t licensed foster parents but are primarily responsible for related children who live with them. Families can use the fund no more than once a year for up to $1,500, said Ann Bright, who administers the fund.

But the Opportunity Council receives only $7,610 twice a year, Bright said, so she tries to make the money last to help as many people as possible.

The fund has recently paid for things like clothes and shoes, bunk beds and mattresses, utility bills, car repairs, extra food and a month’s rent. One grandmother asked for drivers’ training fees for her teenage grandson because she was too sick to drive anymore.

“We always run out before the end of the funding cycle,” Bright said.

The Kinship Care Support Program was a blessing last year when Paine nearly lost power to his apartment because of overdue utility bills.

He asked DSHS for one-time assistance but was denied, he said. A day away from losing power and, he feared, custody of his granddaughter he learned the kinship care fund could cover the overdue bill.

The Opportunity Council also provided him a letter stating they had helped with Paine’s utility bill. Paine said a DSHS investigator called to see how he was paying his bills, if his rent took up his entire monthly check. Agencies like the Opportunity Council and other social service organizations, along with occasional help from his sons, help the family make ends meet.

“I know older grandparents out there may not know about these programs,” he said. “How do they survive?”

Among tribal members, many grandparents are private about their situation and don’t apply for government help, said Sharon Wolf, who recently retired as tribal outreach coordinator for the Northwest Regional Council. And many don’t trust the government after their own childhood memories of American Indian youngsters being removed from their homes, she said.

Wolf and the council’s current tribal outreach coordinator, Ethyl Warbus, have developed an extensive booklet of resources for grandparents, including financial help, self-help tips and information about the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Statewide, some communities are launching state-funded pilot programs in which a “kinship navigator” helps grandparents and other care-giving relatives find the help they need, Hauptman said.

In addition to programs in King County and Yakima, the state recently started four other kinship navigator programs, but none yet serving Whatcom County. The programs offer an information center for grandparents about housing, financial assistance, legal services and support groups.”There’s not enough resources,” Hauptman said, “but at least the parties are well-connected.”

Many grandparents also need occasional help with child care, she said, particularly when they’re not working and are ineligible for child-care assistance from the state.

“Oftentimes, they’re ignoring their own health to protect this child,” she said. “That is definitely an area where we need to do a lot more.”

Paine, who used to work in construction and fishing, is facing his own health issues. His doctor has declared him too disabled to work, because of lung disease and other medical problems, he said, but his Social Security application has been denied. His attorney told him his ability to take care of his granddaughter might hurt his chances of winning the disability case, he said.

“It’s a struggle, but we’re going to keep struggling, and we’re going to make it,” Paine said. “The sad part is, I have a feeling it’s going to continue for a while.”