Report Finds Relatives Caring for Children Need More Support

May 24, 2012

Jack Brown and his wife Martha of Sandy are 74 years old and well into retirement. The Browns have raised five children and 23 grandchildren.

"I thought we were finished raising children," Jack Brown said.

But on this day, in the offices of Voices for Utah Children, the Browns have two little boys clinging to their arms and legs - 9-year-old Austin and 10-year-old Jordan.

"At an early age - in fact when they began to talk - my wife would call them Honey, and so they started calling her Honey," said Brown, "She's Honey, and I'm Papa."

There is clearly a bond between Papa, Honey, and the boys, but there was not always a sense of security with this arrangement. The Brown's daughter has severe clinical depression. Jack and Martha have been taking care of her sons for much of their lives, but the Browns could not protect their grandsons entirely as their daughter struggled with abusive relationships.

"Any moment, someone could take these boys away from their security. Grandparents have very little rights, other than to stand in the background, and ring your hands and pray," said Brown.

Then Brown heard about a program in Utah called Grandfamilies. He decided to give them a call.

"Doors opened up and up and lights came on at the end of the tunnel for these boys," said Brown as he wiped away tears and patted his elder grandson Jordan.

The Browns say the boys are extremely smart, but struggle with emotional issues. The family took a ten-week course, designed to help kinship caregivers deal with all the challenges of meeting the needs of these children. The Browns not only got emotional support, but Grandfamilies also provided legal advice which helped them gain guardianship.

"Having that legal guardianship, we can sleep better at night. We know we have control, to keep these boys safe and protected," said Brown.

Emily Red is the Grandfamilies coordinator, who helped the Browns get the help they needed.

"The most crucial things for us is that these families feel empowered and not alone," said Red.

In fact, there are many families out there in similar situations. A new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates there are 2.7 million children in America raised by grandparents or relatives - 15,000 of them in Utah. Terry Haven is the Kids Count Director at Voices for Utah's Children. She says family caregivers are more likely to be poor, older, and unemployed, creating financial difficulties when they become guardians for children.

"If you're an older family that's on a fixed income, and all of a sudden you've got two more mouths to feed, and two more bodies to clothe, it's an issue, and we want to make sure those families have everything they need to succeed," said Haven.

The Casey Foundation report found that many families are not aware of the counseling or financial support for which they may be eligible. Beyond that, the foundation said there are barriers within the child welfare system which work against families. In Utah, for instance, relatives have to go through the same bureaucratic process as any foster family to gain custody. Stacy Ghneim is the Deputy Director for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, and she says the state is reviewing its licensing requirements.

"We're really hoping as we look at our policies here in Utah that those can really be a lot more family friendly, and kid friendly to support kin families, and the children they're trying to take care of," said Ghneim.

Jack Brown says he can understand why many families would be hesitant to seek help. Brown says grandparents are caught in the middle between parents and government agencies.

"That's a real fear that you have in opening your private doors and allowing some one who is not related and has no emotional involvement step in with their check-off list."

Despite the fear and the difficulty, the Browns are convinced that taking care of their grandsons is the right thing to do, and that they need as much help as they can get.