With Less Support, Family Caregivers Relieve the Foster System

Grandparents and others take in unparented kids, but help can be patchy.


As a mom, Gracie Pelletier always knew her son was different. Exuberant, defiant, passionate and gorgeous, he arrived at his teenaged years ready for trouble — the kind neither of his sisters attracted. Even so, Pelletier and her husband loved him and parented him through the drugs, the brushes with the law, through sloughing off school. When he impregnated his girlfriend at 19, they stood by him.

But when two years later the police broke down his door to apprehend his daughter amidst charges of abuse and neglect, Pelletier was forced to choose between her relationship with her son and keeping her granddaughter, Jenny, in the family.

A few hours after the incident, sitting in the local office of the Ministry for Children and Family Development (MCFD), Pelletier met with social workers who, she said, had already decided that being removed from her family was Jenny’s best hope.

For Pelletier, it was no option at all.

“I knew I needed to save that girl,” Pelletier, a former government worker, told Tyee Solutions Society. “Everyone I know with a foster care experience had been abused. There must be some good families out there, some success stories. But I was not willing to play roulette with my grandchild’s life.”

Pelletier spent the next eight hours in the office fighting to keep her granddaughter. One of the Ministry’s conditions included enforcing a no-contact order between her son and Jenny. She agreed, knowing even then that raising yet another child would cost her thousands of dollars a year when she was already struggling to pay family medical bills. It would also cost her relationship with her son.

And with that heart-wrenching agreement, Pelletier became one of the grandparents and other relatives parenting 10,000 vulnerable children in B.C.

Many, like Pelletier, do it with little financial support. But given the benefits of family over foster care, some lobbyists suggest it would behoove government — and society — to support all such “kinship-care” givers better. Perhaps even on par with foster parents who essentially do the same work.

Here’s why. Vulnerable kids who stay with their extended families experience less trauma, move less frequently, and are more likely to grow up with their siblings than kids in foster care.

That’s according to a 2012 study on Ontario, but its results have been echoed in other recent kinship-care studies throughout North America. In the long term, advocates say those advantages among children and teens cared for by kin are likely to result in less youth homelessness, less addiction, less abuse-related mental illness, and better educations.

The deputy minister in charge of child protection, Stephen Brown, told Tyee Solutions Society that kinship care is central to the ministry’s upcoming reorganization. In fact, the number of kids routed by MCFD towards staying with relatives instead of in foster care has doubled since 2007.

Encouraging extended family care shows up as a general aim in the ministry’s 2013 service plan as well. But details are limited. And Brown wouldn’t say whether all relatives caring for kin will benefit from a new funding formula — or how much they’ll be offered.

In other words, we know this works. But is B.C. willing to pay to have family members, most of them grandparents, take up caring for the province’s abused and abandoned kids?

Money changes everything

Poor, elderly, single, female: that’s generally who takes on the care of a vulnerable kid in their family, according to Carol Ross, the executive director of the Parent Support Services Society of B.C. A social worker with more than 30 years in public and private practice, Ross is also B.C.’s most vocal advocate for the support network Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

Across Canada, fully one-third of grandparent-headed households with young children have an annual income of less than $15,000 according to a (dated, but rigorous) McMaster University study. In B.C., seven out of 10 had annual incomes under $50,000, according to a 2009 study by Ross’s Parent Support Services Society of B.C.

In her office near Edmunds Skytrain Station, Ross grew rosy talking about the hard choices kin caregivers face. “One of the worst situations I’ve ever witnessed is watching a grandma decide which of her grandchildren she could afford to take,” Ross recounted. “She couldn’t afford to take all four, so she chose two and sent the other two into foster care.”

But it’s not just grandparents living in poverty who can use the public’s help, Ross pointed out. For some with middle-class incomes, she said, any extra dollars go towards piano lessons and soccer camps. The point for Ross is that government provide the same support to every household caring for a grandchild — or extended-family member — no matter what their household income is.

Until relatively recently, B.C. helped all grandparents (or other relatives) with the cost of looking after un-parented children. Under the Child In the Home of a Relative (CIHR) program, all grandparents, regardless of their income, custody arrangement or a child’s disability status, qualified for payments of between $257.46 and $454.32 per month, per grandchild, depending on the age of the child.

Many cracks to fall through

The universal CIHR was axed in 2010 (although the program has been grandfathered out, providing ongoing support to those who qualified before its repeal). In its place is a dizzying array of conditional help for extended families trying to do right by a child.

The Extended Family Program, introduced in 2010 to replace the former CIHR, provides only temporary support; grandparents must not have legal custody of the child; and the child’s parent must agree to the program and the choice of relative — conditions which, Ross points out, exclude many family caregivers who have fought for and secured custody. Qualifying relatives receive payments of up to $625 per month — more generous than CIHR, but still about one-third less than the $909.95 that non-family foster caregivers receive.

Then, earlier this year, the Ministry for Children and Family Development introduced Permanent Kinship Care. The good news for caregivers: it pays the same benefits as those paid to foster families, $803.83 for children and $909.95 for teens.

The bad news: the program isn’t available to all “kin” providing care. It’s only for families who qualify for and complete six months of support from the temporary Extended Family Program, or those who have a temporary custody agreement after a child has been apprehended by the ministry and is not going to be returned to their parent’s care.

The ministry would not disclose how many children benefit from the Extended Family Program, Permanent Kinship Care or are being grandfathered out of CIHR. According to a communications officer, the ministry feels that an election campaign period is no time to let voters in on information not previously revealed.

For Pelletier, even the basic foster care family payment of $909.95 per month would be welcome. After gaining custody of Jenny, her family spent about $5,000 on counselling, out of pocket, to heal the trauma of the violence and apprehension.

For relatives like Pelletier who don’t fit those criteria, government seems to offer a veritable buffet of other funding programs, but few caregivers can assemble a full meal from every steam tray.

For example, all extended families in Canada qualify for the Universal Child Care Benefit, which in B.C. pays $100 per month per child, but only until the child turns six. The Canada Child Tax Benefit pays an additional $290.41 a month for families with household incomes under $24,183. The B.C. ‘Family Bonus’ pays up to $181.41 per month for low-income families — and lesser amounts for modest-earning households.

In qualifying circumstances, the federal Child Disability Benefit offers a maximum of $218.83 per month for households earning under $43,561 and caring for a disabled child. At $80,000, families get $158.10 and families that earn above $180,000 do not qualify.

Put simply, under the most extreme circumstance — if a family is very low-income (but not on income assistance), and has a disabled child who is under six years old — the provincial and federal governments will deliver up to $790.65 per month. If none of those circumstances apply, or the family isn’t able to negotiate the maze of applications, child-rearing grandparents like Pelletier get nothing.

Ross’ group, Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, would like to see this federal-provincial basket of fragmented and highly conditional programs replaced by a restored system of payments to care-giving relatives that is simple, universal and sufficient.

Meanwhile, elsewhere

While B.C. juggles who is entitled to what kind of support, another Commonwealth country, with fewer resources, is moving towards including all grandparents.

On April 13, the Gauteng High Court in Johannesburg — equivalent to a provincial supreme court in Canada — ruled that South Africa’s government should extend full foster care payments to all grandparents caring for their grandchildren and also that every grandparent caring for orphaned or neglected relatives should qualify for state support, regardless of their income.

By Canadian standards the benefits at stake are not a lot of money — about $91 per child, per month. But the universal payment recognizes the contribution of care-giving grandparents.

“I welcome the Court’s ruling because it is consistent with the Children’s Act, which does not set out a means test to be applied nor does it provide for an investigation of the earnings of foster parents,” South Africa’s Minister of Social Development, Bathabile Dlamini, said in welcoming the ruling. “In fact, the Children’s Act provides only that a court determine whether a child is in need of care and protection, and… may make an order placing a child in foster care. The Social Assistance Act categorically states that a foster parent qualifies for a foster care grant regardless of his/her income.”

Because Pelletier’s husband earns just enough to put the couple outside the “low-income” category, and Jenny is neither disabled nor under six, the family doesn’t qualify for the Extended Family Program (she hadn’t heard of the Permanent Kinship Care program — and doesn’t think she’d qualify for it anyway). Indeed, she receives no money from government.

diamini.jpg

South Africa’s Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini welcomed a court order extending benefits to all caregiving grandparents.

Kids are costly

So how much does looking after Jenny cost her?

Pelletier doesn’t keep track. But in 2011, financial journalist Camilla Cornell alsoattempted to figure out how much raising a child in Canada costs for MoneySense: ‘Canada’s Personal Finance Web site.’

To do it, she interviewed several Canadian money experts and pulled numbers from Statistics Canada spending reports. Her calculation includes basic food, clothing, transportation, and housing, but not extras such as “birthday parties, presents, family vacations and parent-child bonding sessions over outrageously priced pseudo-coffee drinks.” It’s striking, if easily challenged, estimate put the no-frills cost of raising a child at about $1068.68 a month.

As a comparison, the provincial government spends an average of $2,828.75 per month to keep a child in a foster or group home, when administration expense is added to the direct cash benefit.

Put another way, Pelletier’s willingness to spend what must be many hundreds of dollars a month out of her own family’s modest income to keep Jenny out of institutional foster care, saves taxpayers nearly $36,000 a year, while likely giving Jenny a better life than if she’d been handed over to the system.

However, leveling out the playing field for kin caregivers wouldn’t be cheap.

If all 10,000 kids in the care of their relatives in B.C. qualified for the $625 CIHR payments, it would cost the province $75 million per year in additional benefits alone and far more to administer. Parity with foster parents at a little over $900 a month — once the cost of administering the benefit was included — would cost taxpayers $2.8 billion extra per year.

From another perspective, of course, that’s the value of the services that British Columbia society is receiving, in the care that grandparents, aunts, uncles and other extended relatives provide to parentless kids — for free or very little.

Heart work

But family care isn’t all about the money. Its magic, according to Métis social worker Jeannine Carrier-Laboucane, is really about heart, family, roots, and identity.

As a child adoptee, she felt lonely and inauthentic: “Meeting my birth family and recognizing my connection to the Métis Community gave me a sense of belonging for the first time in my life,” she wrote in Native Social Work Journal.

Kinship care, she argues, “provides children with a sense of who they are and their important place in family and community.” This is heart work, not a job.

Ultimately, that’s why Pelletier keeps Jenny with her — even at a cost of untold thousands of dollars. As much as money would be nice, she says, she would care for her granddaughter even if it drove her to bankruptcy.

“We’ve got a happy girl,” said Pelletier. “She’s developing a good relationship with her mom, she’s doing well at school, she knows who she is and who she belongs to.

“I don’t believe we’re that special. With the right supports, more families can make this decision.”

Pieta Woolley reports on solutions to breaking the link between foster care and youth homelessness for The Tyee Solutions Society. This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this page for contacts and information.