Grandfamilies and COVID-19: Families of Unique Origins Face Unique Challenges

Oct 12, 2021, 9:00 AM, Posted by

Raising a child can be hard at any age. Doing so in one’s golden years during a global pandemic introduces an array of unique challenges.

Grandfather carries grandson on his shoulders.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A shocking 140,000 U.S. children lost a parent or grandparent caregiver 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 harm can be long-lasting. These losses also dramatically increase responsibilities for the grandparents and other relatives who step in to provide care. In a powerful post last year, RWJF’s Jennie Day-Burget looked at what Generations United has learned about the challenges facing grandparent caregivers and the policies that would support them. As Congress debates budget reconciliation, we re-share her piece.

Mel Hannah spent most of his life in service to others. He was the first African American member of the Flagstaff City Council and vice chairman of the NAACP Arizona State Conference. And, in service to his beloved family, Mel and his wife Shirley, now in their 80s, have been helping their daughter Ashley raise her three children these past years. Sadly, however, Ashley contracted and tragically died from COVID-19 in May. Ashley’s untimely death left the Hannahs as the sole caretakers for her young boys, ages 5, 4, and 1.

The Hannahs’ story exemplifies the heavy toll of the pandemic, and especially the unique and often overlooked impact it is having on “grandfamilies” or kinship families. These are families in which children live with and are being raised by grandparents, other extended family members, and adults with whom they have a close family-like relationship, such as godparents and close family friends. Astonishingly, about 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 household.

Often these families come together because of serious circumstances—including death, trauma, deployment, incarceration or substance abuse, and since March, the death of parents due to COVID-19. Raising kids is hard at any age, but doing so in one's “golden years” like the Hannahs’—particularly during a global pandemic—comes with its own unique challenges.

A report from RWJF grantee Generations United sheds light on families like the Hannahs, including the particular challenges they are facing as the world grapples with the coronavirus. The report found:

  • Almost half of grandparent caregivers are age 60 and older and at heightened risk for COVID-19.
  • More grandparent caregivers have disabilities than parents and also are likely at heightened risk for COVID-19.
  • Children being raised in grandfamilies are more likely to be Black or Native American than White. These are the same populations that are much more likely to be impacted by the pandemic and die as a result.
Racial Overrepresentation in Grandfamilies Caregivers in grandfamilies are disproportionally Black or Native American. These are the same populations that are more likely to be impacted by COVID-19 and die as a result. Source: Facing a Pandemic: Families Living Together During COVID-19 and Thriving Beyond, Generations United 2020 State of Grandfamilies in America Annual Report, September 2020

Kin Caregiving Poses Unique Challenges

The report also features the first nationwide survey of grandfamilies during COVID-19, conducted in partnership with GrOW (Grandfamilies Outcome Workgroup) and Collaborative Solutions, which revealed heightened needs related to housing, food insecurity, and alternative care plans:

  • 38% are unable to pay or are worried about paying mortgage or rent
  • 43% fear leaving their home for food
  • 32% arrive at food pick up sites after they have run out of food
  • 30% have no caregiving plan for the children if the caregivers die or become disabled
COVID-19 Challenges Facing Grandfamilies Grandfamilies are being forced to reckon with unprecedented challenges and tough realities and oftentimes with limited support systems in place. Source: Facing a Pandemic: Families Living Together During COVID-19 and Thriving Beyond, Generations United 2020 State of Grandfamilies in America Annual Report, September 2020

We all have heard that older adults should keep their distance from children because of the heightened risk of infection from COVID-19. For grandfamilies, that distance is impossible.

Also, kin caregivers do not always have automatic legal authority to access support and services for the children in their care. That becomes especially problematic when it is time to enroll in school, access health care, or find another adult to care for the child if the caregiver dies. Obtaining legal authority has been complicated by the pandemic for many families as courthouses are often closed, lawyers are in high demand, and the need to establish alternative care plans is urgent because of unexpected deaths from COVID-19.

Finally, most kin caregivers did not plan to be raising children at this point in their lives. Often, their homes do not have extra room to accommodate children, and they live on fixed incomes so supporting children can be difficult.

Benefits of Kin Caregiving

Decades of research show that children raised by loving family members have much better outcomes than children raised by unrelated parents in foster care. Children living with relatives have more stable and safe childhoods with a greater likelihood 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 keep better connections to their brothers and sisters, extended family, and cultural identity.

There are also significant savings to taxpayers—estimated to be $4 billion a year because grandfamilies are caring for children who would otherwise go into foster care.*

*Generations United calculated this figure based on the federal share of the 2011 national average minimum monthly foster care maintenance payment ($511) for 1.1 million children. The number of children is less than one-half of the children being raised in grandfamilies outside of the formal foster care system. We use this number in the calculation due to a conservative estimate that the others may already receive some type of governmental financial assistance, such as a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) child-only grant. Generations United also knows that a number of children in grandfamilies have special needs that would warrant 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 Grandfamilies and Kin Caregiving

The report contains robust policy and practice recommendations that would provide better support to these families. A few that are especially important are to:

  • Increase funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and encourage states, tribes, and localities to increase the monthly child-only grant amount to mirror foster care maintenance payments in each jurisdiction.
  • Coordinate COVID-19 response efforts across systems—including aging, education, housing, and child welfare—to ensure that grandfamilies can obtain services and support such as legal assistance to make alternative care plans; child care and respite; hardware and technology support; financial and housing assistance; help with court orders and child welfare case plans mandating visitation with birth parents; and caregiver training and other support.
  • Improve access to TANF child-only grants through simplified applications and more community outreach so kin caregivers can meet the needs of the children they did not plan or expect to raise.
  • License more relatives as foster parents by responding to delays caused by the pandemic with innovative virtual and other known solutions.
  • Use inclusive language and images in outreach materials, such as “caregiver” or “family member.”

Grandfamilies Must be Included in an Equitable, COVID-19 Recovery   

The health of our nation depends upon the health and well-being of our children and families—all our families. All parents and caregivers strive to provide what’s best for their kids. But in today’s America, families do not have the same access to opportunity—and the COVID-19 pandemic is making those gaps even wider. Families are making impossible choices between putting food on the table, providing shelter, and getting quality healthcare when a child gets sick. A recent poll released by RWJF, NPR and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health reveals how households with children experienced widespread, serious financial and health problems since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, including problems caring for children and paying bills.

These challenges are often exacerbated for grandfamilies. For example, when Mel and Shirely Hannah’s daughter Ashley was living with them, she worked and was able to help with household expenses. They have struggled financially since her death. They have a hard time covering their $400 a month energy bill and had to give up their internet connection, making it difficult for their five-year-old to participate in online classes.

It is important to understand stories like the Hannahs’ and others like them, which you can listen to on Every Family Forward, so we can better consider, discuss, and design equitable policies and systems that support all families, including grandfamilies, who have lived unnoticed and under-resourced for far too long.

Learn more about the unique challenges that grandfamilies like the Hannahs' are facing 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.


About the Author

Jennie Day-Burget

Jennie Day-Burget, an award-winning public relations and communications professional, joined RWJF in 2015. She provides communications support to RWJF initiatives aimed at strengthening vulnerable children and families and programs that help all children achieve a healthy weight.