ANNAPOLIS – Sighing, Claudia Dock pointed to a magazine picture of a grandmother hugging her granddaughter. In the picture both are carefree and laughing.
“You see that picture?” Dock asked. “That is not me. We do not look like that anymore.”
She is referring to grandparents; a group 35 and over that have had an unexpected burden thrust upon them in the last 10 years: raising their young grandchildren. As a 50-year-old grandmother raising her 15-year-old granddaughter, Dock is a leader in the growing trend of relatives taking care of children who are not their own.
Between 1993 and 1998, the number of Maryland children in this type of family situation, called kinship care, grew by 45 percent. The increase was prompted by changes in the foster care system. In 1995, the General Assembly required children taken out of their homes to be placed with relatives, where possible.
In Baltimore where Dock lives, more than 3,000 households have children in kinship care. That is nearly 93 percent of the state’s total. Informal cases are estimated at four times the number of those court- ordered situations, said caseworkers at the state Department of Human Resources.
“The reasons for the large numbers of kinship care cases in Baltimore are similar to those in all urban areas: poverty, physical abuse and neglect, and drug abuse,” said Mildred Gee, the program manager for the Department of Human Resource’s Kinship Care Program.
The number of foster care cases in Baltimore is the same, around 3,000, but that is proportionally lower, at just over 50 percent of the state’s total, than the kinship care figures. Those numbers could have weighty implications, Gee said.
In many cases, children outside of Baltimore were not considered for kinship care, Gee said. Since the formal program began, however, the other departments have been placing children in family care, she said.
“I know in the beginning, there were certain local departments of social services that were not recognizing kinship care,” Gee said.
Kinship care is not without its critics. They claim the child’s welfare is at stake because children are placed in the homes where their problem parents grew up. The fear is that children will pick up the same problems.
The parent’s troubles are not necessarily a reflection on the grandparent, Gee said. In many instances, like Dock’s, the grandparent will have subsequent children who are successful parents.
Dock has been doing her best, caring for her granddaughter, Kionna, for 12 years.
Her daughter, like many of the absent parents in the kinship care system, is a substance abuser and unable to raise Kionna.
Kionna’s mother still sees her from time to time, but the caregiving has been left to Dock.
“My daughter always felt I was the best person to raise Kionna,” Dock said. “But she is still the mother, and (Kionna) still has to give her that respect.”
Dock sees her grandchild as a blessing, but said raising both her granddaughter and her youngest daughter, now 22, has been tough.
“You are always being pulled in a thousand directions,” Dock said. “And there is so much we have to deal with now that we never had exposure to before. We weren’t taught this when I was a parent. We didn’t have to deal with the drug epidemic.”
Raising young children on a fixed income or at a time when they are preparing for retirement places a profound economic and emotional toll on the people who take these children, said Brenda Shepherd-Vernon, a social worker at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington.
“You have a group of people being confronted with having children they did not plan on having in their lives, because for whatever reason the parents couldn’t take care of them,” Shepherd-Vernon said. “It’s like getting a major change of life with no preparation.”
The program, designed to cut down on the burgeoning numbers of children lost in the foster care system, also keeps children within family bonds and cultural context, said Susan London Russell, an intergenerational specialist at the Department of Aging.
Kinship care is also cheaper for the state. While foster parents receive between $500 to $600 a child, kinship caregivers can receive only $177 per child plus medical assistance. In order to qualify for the money, relatives must go through a criminal background investigation and a home site assessment. Requirements are more stringent for foster parents. Statistics reveal a formidable disparity between the two groups. On average, foster parents are better educated and more likely to be employed than kinship caregivers. According to the U. S. Department of Heath and Human Services, 42.6 percent of kinship caregivers are high school dropouts, while only 15.2 percent of foster parents are. Seventy-two percent of foster parents are employed, compared to 58 percent of family caregivers. In 1998, only 801 Maryland kinship caregivers converted to foster care, and that gap grows each year. In some cases grandparents do not even try to become foster parents because it means having to admit their children are unfit, which emotionally is difficult to do, said Margaret Hollidge, the director of the America Association of Retired Persons’ Grandparent Information Center.
“Many of them really do think it’s for a little while,” Hollidge said. “They are hoping the parents will shape up and will start acting like parents. I’ve gotten letters from people about the overwhelming sadness they felt, watching their children deal with drug problems and hoping, because the children are waiting, that the parents will pass the drug test this time.”
Grandparents are the largest group of kinship caregivers. In Maryland, almost 50 percent of children are placed with grandparents. Aunt and uncles, the next closest group, account for 38 percent. Nationwide in the last 30 years, the number of children in their grandparent’s care has risen 76 percent.
Dock said she is lucky because she is only caring for one grandchild. Some grandmothers she has talked to are caring for as many as 17 children.
“And they love you so much for what you’re doing,” Dock said. “They are all the time saying, ‘Grandma, I love you.’ But then they look around and wonder why their own parents are more in love with their lifestyles than with them.”