WASHINGTON – Alexis was 5 years old when her mother dropped her off at her grandpa’s house one afternoon in the fall of 2001 — and never came back.
It was not the only rejection she would face that year: For the next six months, the local school didn’t want Alexis either.
“I tried everything I knew, but they (school officials) wouldn’t let me do anything without legal custody,” said Russell Shrout, the girl’s grandfather, who tried to enroll Alexis in a school closer to his Baltimore City house after he took her in.
Shrout was reluctant to take custody away from his daughter, and Maryland law at the time did not let kinship caregivers — people caring informally for a child who is not their own — enroll kids anywhere but the child’s home school.
Alexis’ situation is not unique. Close to 100,000 children in Maryland lived with their grandparents in kinship care situations, according to the 2000 Census. Advocates claim the total number in kinship care in the state — including arrangements other than grandkids and grandparents — is closer to 129,000
The Census said congressional District 7, which includes parts of Baltimore City and county, has the third-highest percentage of kids living with a grandparent of all 435 congressional districts in the country, at 17.8 percent. District 4, which includes parts of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, is 47th on the list with almost 10 percent of children being cared for by a grandparent.
Some help for those caregivers arrived this summer in the form of a new law that streamlines the process for enrolling the children they care for in local school districts.
Before the law took effect on July 1, an informal guardian needed to either gain legal custody of the child or present the child’s parent in order for the child to change schools. The former could take months to accomplish. The latter, depending on the situation, sometimes proved impossible.
“Legally, there were no options for grandparents before the bill was passed,” said Pat Owens, chairwoman for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. “They were making relative caregivers lie and be dishonest in order to enroll them in school.”
Under the new law, guardians need only submit an affidavit to their local school that confirms that the child’s parent cannot care for the child due to one of six reasons: death, serious illness, drug addiction, incarceration, abandonment or assignment to active military duty.
Schools may require additional documentation, a prospect that has caregivers anxious. But educators have reported few problems so far.
A major benefit of the new law is that now, “the kids are enrolled first, questions asked second,” said Meira Hord, project director for the Kinship Care Resource Center at Coppin State College. Most kids who suffered under the old law were the ones who needed the stability of a routine the most, she said.
“They’re the ones who are most hurt when they miss a year of school or even a few days. Most of these kids are going through a lot already,” she said. The legislation “is really going to make a difference to a lot of children.”
County school boards have until next year to report the number of families who have taken advantage of the new law. But officials expect that the number of people who will benefit from the new law will be at least as great as the number who went through the hassle of getting custody in the 2000-2001 school year and receiving a non-family hardship waiver to enroll the student.
“I would be surprised if the numbers don’t go up,” said Thurman Doolittle, a pupil personnel specialist in the state Department of Education.
In 2000-2001, Prince George’s County granted 1,411 non-family hardship waivers, Baltimore County granted 417, Charles County granted 20 and Wicomico County granted 21, according to documents supporting the new law.
Shrout was one of those who received a hardship waiver, after finally deciding to go ahead and take custody of Alexis. He remains bitter about the treatment he received from school officials under the old law.
“I got notarized letters and documents. They wouldn’t accept none of that. My daughter had to show up in person,” he said.
But Shrout said his daughter, Alexis’ mother, “was doing real bad” at the time and could not be found.
He applied for and was granted full custody of Alexis before the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year. He took time this spring to testify in support of the new law, so that other caregivers would not have to go through what he and Alexis did.
“You should see her, she loves school,” Shrout said of Alexis, in his testimony. “When she comes in from school she is so happy. She can’t wait to tell us what she did all day.”