(This article first appeared in GRAND Magazine.)
For the majority of children in the U.S. gifts and family may seem almost synonymous with the holidays. But for the more than 55,000 children and youth in the U.S. foster care system who are living in group homes, the gift of family feels largely out of reach. One in seven children under the care of the child welfare system is placed in a group setting, even though more than 40 percent of these children have no documented clinical or behavioral needs that warrant placing them in group settings without families.
Every child needs a family and research shows they do best when that family is headed by a grandparent or other relative. Compared to children in group care and those in foster care with non-relatives, children in foster care with grandparents or other relatives have more stable lives, better behavioral and mental health, and are less likely to run away. Perhaps most importantly, they are most likely to report they “always feel loved.”
But the child welfare system is not set up to provide the necessary outreach, supports and services grandparents and other relatives need when they step in to raise children.
Bob Ruble of California understands well the importance of supporting relatives to keep children with family and out of group care. Bob explains, “My sister had many life issues and had been making poor and unsafe decisions while raising her daughter, my niece. When my niece was 8, I made the call my sister was arrested. My niece was removed from her care and placed in group home care. I assumed I was done. The next day I got the call and was asked to have her placed with me. There was no one else who could and I was told if I said no then she would be placed with a stranger in foster care so I stepped in to care for her. My journey began and I was left with little direction on how to proceed on my own.”
Yet Bob was fortunate in many ways. He had a steady income and was able to handle the financial issues until additional resources were made available and he had the stamina to track down the elusive information and support he and his niece needed.
In contrast, of the 2.6 million grandparents responsible for grandchildren across the country, more than one in five lives below the poverty line. Twenty-six percent of them have a disability and are juggling their own health care needs in addition to the needs of the children. The vast majority do not have supports or do not know how to access the supports and services that are available to them.
In the midst of this holiday season, Congress has the opportunity to give the gift of a safe and loving family to children who cannot remain with their parents. Bipartisan legislation called the Family First Prevention Services Act passed the House of Representatives in June. The legislation would prioritize families for children and reform federal child welfare financing so that those funds could be used for supportive services to grandparents and other relatives to help keep children with them and out of foster care when possible. But the Senate left for recess in September without passing the bill. Even following a divisive and contentious election season, the importance of supporting families for children is something elected officials on both sides of the aisle can agree on. They simply need to make it a priority and get it done when they reconvene for a lame duck session in November.
And if they do, Bob, who has gone on to become a spokesperson and advocate for children being raised by relatives, will highlight for them what the gift of family can mean in the life of a child. Now age 22, Bob’s niece, Kindra, is attending Fullerton College and is pursuing a major in art and a minor in psychology. He is so proud of her and reports that she is an amazingly talented artist and an equally skilled writer. Lately, she has been talking with Bob about plans to write her story about how important it was for her to remain with family. When she shares it, she hopes it may help others this holiday season understand what family has meant to her. A true gift.