EDITOR’S NOTE: A staggering 140,000 American children lost a parent or grandparent to care for them due to COVID-19 in just 15 months, according to A study in Pediatrics, with children of color much more likely to lose a caregiver than white children.
The the damage can be lasting. These losses also dramatically increase the responsibilities of grandparents and other relatives who step in to provide care. In a powerful post last year, RWJF’s Jennie Day-Burget analyzed what Generations United has learned about the challenges facing grandparent caregivers and the policies that would support them. As Congress debates budget reconciliation, we share your article again.
Mel Hannah spent most of her life serving others. He was the first African-American member of the Flagstaff City Council and Vice President of the Arizona NAACP State Conference. And, in the service of his loving family, Mel and his wife Shirley, now in her 80s, have been helping his daughter Ashley raise her three children for the past several years. Sadly, however, Ashley contracted and tragically died of COVID-19 in May. Ashley’s untimely death left the Hannahs the sole caretakers of her young children, ages 5, 4 and 1.
The Hannahs’ story exemplifies the high cost of the pandemic, and especially the unique and often overlooked impact it is having on “grandmothers” or kinship families. These are families where children live and are being raised by grandparents, other extended family members, and adults with whom they have a close family relationship, such as godparents and close family friends. A staggering 7.8 million children across the country live in households headed by grandparents or other relatives. Of that number, 2.7 million do not have a parent living in the home.
Often these families are brought together due to serious circumstances, including death, trauma, deployment, incarceration or substance abuse and, since March, the death of the parents due to COVID-19. Raising children is difficult at any age, but doing so in the “golden years” of one like the Hannahs, particularly during a global pandemic, presents its own unique challenges.
A report from RWJF grantee Generations United sheds light on families like the Hannahs, including the particular challenges they face as the world grapples with coronavirus. The report found:
- Nearly half of grandparent caregivers are age 60 or older and are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19.
- More grandparent caregivers have disabilities than parents and are also likely to be at higher risk for COVID-19.
- Children raised in grandparent families are more likely to be black or Native American than white. These are the same populations that are much more likely to be affected by the pandemic and die as a result.
Kinship care poses unique challenges
The report also features the first national survey of grandmothers during COVID-19, conducted in collaboration with GrOW (Grandfamilies Outcome Workgroup) and Collaborative Solutions, which revealed increased needs related to housing, food insecurity, and alternative care plans:
- 38% can’t pay or are worried about paying their mortgage or rent
- 43% fear leaving home to eat
- 32% arrive at food collection sites after running out of food.
- 30% do not have a care plan for children if caregivers die or become disabled.
We have all heard that older adults should stay away from children due to the increased risk of COVID-19 infection. For grandparent families, that distance is impossible.
In addition, relative caregivers do not always have automatic legal authority to access supports and services for the children in their care. That becomes especially problematic when it comes time to enroll in school, access health care, or find another adult to care for the child if the caregiver dies. The pandemic has complicated obtaining legal authority for many families, as courts are often closed, lawyers are in high demand, and the need for alternative care plans is urgent due to unexpected deaths from COVID-19.
Finally, most of the relative caregivers did not plan to raise children at this time in their lives. Their households often have no extra space to accommodate the children and they live on a fixed income, so supporting children can be difficult.
Kinship Care Benefits
Decades of research show that children raised by loving relatives have much better outcomes than children raised by unrelated parents in foster care. Children who live with relatives have a more stable and secure childhood with a greater chance of having a permanent home. These children have fewer school changes, experience better behavioral and mental health outcomes, and, perhaps most importantly, are more likely to report that they “always feel loved.” They maintain better connections with their brothers and sisters, extended family, and cultural identity.
There are also significant savings for taxpayers, estimated at $4 billion a year because grandmothers are caring for children who would otherwise go into foster care.*
*Generations United calculated this figure based on the federal portion of the 2011 national average minimum monthly foster care maintenance payment ($511) for 1.1 million children. The number of children is less than half of the children raised in grandparent families outside of the formal foster care system. We use this number in the calculation because of a conservative estimate that others may already receive some form of government financial assistance, such as a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grant for children only. Generations United also knows that a number of children in grandparent families have special needs that would justify higher monthly foster care maintenance payments. The cost of 1.1 million children entering the system would represent all new financial outlays for taxpayers.
Policy and Practice Recommendations to Support Grandmothers and Relative Caregivers
The report contains strong policy and practice recommendations that would better support these families. Some that are especially important are:
- Increase funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and encourage states, tribes, and localities to increase the monthly child-only grant amount to reflect foster care maintenance payments in each jurisdiction.
- Coordinate COVID-19 response efforts across systems— including aging, education, housing, and child welfare — to ensure that grandparent families can obtain services and support, such as legal assistance in making alternative care plans; child care and rest; hardware and technology support; financial and housing assistance; help with court orders and child welfare case plans that require visits with birth parents; and caregiver training and other support.
- Improving access to TANF grants just for children through streamlined applications and more community outreach so kinship caregivers can meet the needs of children they didn’t plan or expect to raise.
- License more relatives as adoptive parents responding to delays caused by the pandemic with innovative virtual and other familiar solutions.
- Use inclusive language and images in outreach materials, such as “caregiver” or “family member.”
Grandparent families must be included in an equitable recovery from COVID-19
The health of our nation depends on the health and well-being of our children and families, all of our families. All parents and caregivers strive to provide the best for their children. But in America today, families don’t have equal access to opportunity, and the COVID-19 pandemic is widening those gaps even further. Families are making impossible choices between putting food on the table, providing shelter, and getting quality medical care when a child gets sick. A recent survey published by RWJF, NPR and the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health reveals how households with children have experienced widespread and serious health and financial problems since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including problems caring for children. kids and pay the bills.
These challenges are often exacerbated for grandparent families. For example, when Mel and Shirely Hannah’s daughter Ashley lived with them, she worked and was able to help with household expenses. They have had financial problems since her death. They find it difficult to cover their $400-a-month energy bill and had to give up their internet connection, making it difficult for their five-year-old son to participate in online classes.
It is important to understand stories like Hannah’s and others like them, which you can hear on Every Family Forward, so that we can consider, discuss and design better policies and equitable systems that support all families, including grandparent families, who have lived under the radar. and without resources for too long.
Learn more about the unique challenges facing grandfamilies like Hannah’s by reading Generations United’s 2020 State of Grandfamilies in America Annual Report, Facing a Pandemic: Families Living Together during COVID-19 and Thriving Beyond.