Why do poor grandparents refuse child support?

By Tim Morrison

When children are removed from their homes, foster care agencies prefer to place them with caregivers who are related, often grandparents. Unlike adoptive parents, however, nearly nine out of 10 of these grandparent caregivers who are eligible for benefits that support children newly in their care do not receive them, and in most cases purposefully reject them, because of the way they are administered.

Why would grandparents turn down the money?

“Most grandparents, in particular, said they’re well aware of what they’re eligible for,” said Serita Cox, co-Founder of iFoster, who recently led a series of focus groups with grandparents and other kin caregivers in California. “They’re choosing to turn down the benefits because the government will go after the parents for child support.”

In these cases, federal law requires social service administrators to seek child support payments from a child’s biological parent who, in any case of benefits for grandparent caregivers, happens to be the child of the caregiver. This places grandparents in the middle of two competing interests, but the data on benefit take-up, together with focus group results, have made clear which emotional tug typically pulls hardest.

“Grandparents want nothing more than to see their kids stand on their own two feet,” Cox said “In a biological family, you can imagine how straining it is.”

The federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 established a grant process for state and local initiatives to support kinship care families (in which children are cared for by non-parent relatives).

With the ensuing attention paid to this growing, but historically hidden, group of ‘non-traditional’ families, a 2012 report by The Annie E. Casey Foundation found that less than 12 percent of kin caregivers receive the monthly TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, aka “welfare”) Child Benefit funds entitled to them as caregivers.

Meanwhile, indicators of well-being are low for children in the care of their grandparents, who are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as the overall adult population. Child welfare experts continue to search for ways to support these families. The monthly Child Benefit grant of about $300 can be a critical support.

Recently, iFoster (one of seven current recipients of the federal kinship care grant program) learned of a federal “good cause” exemption that can permit grandparents to access child support without having to incriminate their own child (by giving their name and address to the state).

According to Cox, the Children’s Bureau – the federal agency with jurisdiction over rules regarding these particular welfare benefits – is concerned about this issue. But, she says, “It is unclear at the local level how this exemption can and should be applied to relative caregiver situations.”

Until the Children’s Bureau can provide greater clarity on the applicability of the “good cause” exemption to grandparent caregivers, TANF welfare administrators have only the guidance of their mission to follow: to help families in need.

Tim Morrison is a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy. He wrote this story as part of his course work for a class called Journalism for Social Change taught at the school. 
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