ATLANTA (AP) — Thayer Garrett thought her days of raising a small child were behind her. But after her adult son died last year, leaving behind his toddler, the child’s mother asked Garrett to keep the boy for a few months. A year later, 4-year-old Kenneth is still living with his grandmother.

Melissa Hood already had three young children when she took in her sister’s 2-yearold daughter in 2003. She and her husband eventually adopted Ruby, now 11.

Karen Mathews’ three nephews moved in when their father lost his job and house during the recession. Mathews, who has two children of her own, still has her nephews two years later.

These families are a small part of a big demographic shift: a 78 percent increase in just one decade in the number of Georgia children living in “kinship care.” From 2000 to 2010, their numbers grew from 58,000 to 103,000, the Annie E. Casey Foundation recently reported, based on an analysis of census data.

That breakneck growth far outpaced the country as a whole, which saw an 18 percent increase in kids living with relatives other than their parents. Casey officials weren’t sure why Georgia stood out, but said economic forces were probably at play. “We don’t have any hard evidence to explain why the number of children (in kinship care) is rising, but there’s obviously concern the rough economic environment is putting pressure on parents and overwhelming them,” said Rob Geen, the foundation’s director of family services and systems policy.

Nationally, one in 11 children will spend at least three months of their childhood in kinship care, the report notes. The rate is higher for black children, with one in five living with a relative at some point in his or her youth.

Experts say that children who cannot live with their parents fare better with relatives than strangers, but kinship care is fraught with challenges. Adults who open their homes to relatives’ children often live toward the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, with relatively low incomes and education, the study found. For them, each additional child can represent a serious financial burden.

“The financial part is the hardest. I haven’t received any support from either parent,” said Mathews, of McDonough, via email. “(And) the emotional part is tough. It breaks my heart to see the ups and downs these kids go through.”

For caregivers, the first and most crucial challenge is determining legal guardianship. Without it, a caregiver may struggle just to enroll a child in school or make medical decisions or insure the child.

In Garrett’s case, her grandson’s mother has declined to relinquish guardianship. That prevents Garrett, also of McDonough, from receiving aid to help raise the boy. She pays for his medical care and daycare out of pocket.

In a best-case scenario, a parent can grant legal guardianship to a relative in probate court, said child welfare attorney Les-lie Stewart. In trickier cases involving an absentee parent, the caregiver may need to involve the state’s Division of Family and Children Services, she said, to resolve guardianship issues.

Once legal status is determined, a caregiver may become eligible for several types of financial assistance. They include Medicaid, Temporary Aid for Needy Families, food stamps or, in a few cases, payments as a licensed foster care provider.

The latter is an option in cases in which DFCS determined that a child should be removed from a parent and placed with the relative, Stewart said. Nearly 1,000 Georgia children are in that category.

“Almost every kinship caregiver is eligible for some kind of assistance,” Geen said. For instance, because TANF is determined in kinship care situations by the child’s income, rather than the caregiver’s, virtually every family could qualify. TANF payments start a $155 a month for one child.

“Even if it’s $155 a month, that’s $155 more a month,” Geen said. “That brings with it Medicaid health insurance for the child.”

The problem, he said, is that many caregivers don’t know they may qualify. Nationally, only 12 percent of kinship caregivers try to make use of public aid.

“We don’t do a very good job communicating to them and saying ‘We have resources for you,’ because we’ve set up systems with a nuclear family in mind,” Geen said.

In cases where DFCS places a child with a relative, the caregiver can receive more substantial financial help — the minimum payment is $452 a month — by getting licensed as a foster home. But fewer than 100 kinship caregivers have gone that route.

Geen said he believes Georgia officials should do more to help caregivers understand and negotiate the licensing process. DFCS officials did not grant an interview despite several requests. In an email, an agency spokeswoman provided a DFCS policy about informing families of their options.

Even after caregivers determine what resources might be available, they face a potentially more difficult obstacle: obtaining them. That can be so time-consuming that many simply give up.

Mathews, who receives Medicaid assistance for her nephews, said the process of applying for benefits was confusing and disheartening.

“They do not volunteer any information for you to get help. (They) act as if I am … begging for crack. It’s very frustrating,” Mathews said. “I would just rather not deal with them than seek any more help.”

Despite the challenges, she and the other care providers interviewed for this story said the joys far outweigh the struggles.

Hood, of Taylorsville, said Ruby has adjusted well to life in a busy family but is also very clear about how she fits into the picture.

“She is so mature about it. She’ll tell people that my mom couldn’t take care of me, and that’s OK. So now this is my home and this is my family,” Hood said. “She’s amazing.”

Mathews said her nephews and children are thriving as one large family.

“It has been a learning process for all involved, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” she said.

Garrett, who doesn’t know how long her grandson will remain in her care, said the experience has allowed her to feel closer to her late son.

“It’s been rewarding, because it gives me something to hold onto,” said Garrett, 50. “But by the same token, I wish I was a little bit younger to be doing this.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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