Relatives Raising Children: Why is it so Difficult?

Mar 24, 2022, 11:00 AM, Posted by

Child-welfare systems and policies shouldn't create so many unjust barriers for children growing up in nontraditional families.

Families face challenges illustration.

Life is harder than it has to be for families where grandparents or other relatives step up to care for children when their parents can't. Our family-supportive policies and systems were designed to serve “traditional families,” with services aimed at “parents” and foster families, not relatives who step up. These families face unnecessary barriers to getting the support children need to thrive. This is especially true among Black and American Indian families, who make up a disproportionate share of the 2.6 million families in the United States where children are growing up without parents in the home. The pandemic has made things worse. COVID-19 has robbed thousands of children of their parents and sent them into the care of relatives.

What happened to the Brown family of Baton Rouge, La., helps to tell the story of grandfamilies, also known as kinship families, which form when children are separated from parents through life events like death, illness, incarceration, or deportation. After a horrific onslaught of gun violence killed four members of their family, Robert and Claudia Brown took custody of three grandsons. They fought for 12 years to adopt the boys.

The Browns struggled through trauma, grief, and loss. They scrambled to pay lawyers while supporting three growing boys. They blew through retirement savings. They didn’t know about services or support that could have bolstered their mental health and financial security.

The Browns faced many obstacles simply because they were grandparents raising grandchildren. U.S. family-support systems, services, and policies were not designed for families like theirs.

The RWJF grantee Generations United included the Browns in its 2021 annual report on grandfamilies. While the deadly crimes that befell the Browns were unusual, the struggle they experienced afterward unfortunately was not—it is the story that millions of U.S. families endure. 

What U.S. Systems, Services, and Policies Look Like for Grandfamlies

Support for grandfamilies is woefully inconsistent, fragmented, siloed, underfunded, biased, and inadequate. Systems that are often aimed at “parents” differ within and across county and state lines, are strapped for money, and fail to consider diverse cultural norms that comprise the U.S. today.

Families face challenges illustration.

For example:

  • Without a legal relationship, caregivers are often unable to access key benefits for the child, enroll them in school, or consent to their health care.

  • Fathers, uncles, or other male family members are often overlooked by the child welfare system as potential caregivers for children.

  • A caregiver’s age or relationship to the child can be a barrier to support. In some states, great-grandparents can’t access the same services as grandparents. 

  • In some states, a caregiver who is not related by blood or marriage cannot apply on a child’s behalf for benefits such as Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

Despite all this, children in grandfamilies thrive. Their lives tend to be safer and more stable than those of children in the care of foster parents they are not related to. They experience better behavioral and mental health outcomes. Their families are better at helping them preserve their cultural identity and maintain community connections.

Rosalie Tallbull, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Colorado, struggled through a confusing, sometimes baffling journey in the child-welfare and judicial systems to gain custody of her grandson Mauricio, whose mother struggled with alcoholism. Caseworkers treated Rosalie very poorly, leaving her in the dark about services and supports Mauricio should have received. A landmark law, the Indian Child Welfare Act, was designed to help families like Rosalie's, but lack of funding and limited resources made it difficult for tribal officials to help her.

With help from a grandparents' support group, Rosalie was able to get aid for her grandson through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and TANF. And after two years, she won full legal custody of Mauricio.

While the Browns and Tallbulls eventually secured some helpful support and services for their grandchildren, they were difficult to access and there were fewer resources than were available to unrelated foster families.

Monthly Financial Assistance for One Child chart.

The vast majority of grandfamily caregivers step up to keep families together, keeping children out of foster care. In fact, for every child being raised by a relative in foster care, 18 are being raised by relatives outside foster care. Many caregivers are never given the chance to become fully licensed foster parents, which would give access to more resources that their families need like access to monthly foster care payments.

Families like Rosalie's and the Browns’ shouldn't have to fight so hard. They go to great expense and effort to raise children—they deserve the same support for life's essentials that families with more traditional arrangements receive. 

Governments and child-welfare agencies need to do many things to ease the needlessly cruel burdens faced by nontraditional families. Our country understands inequities better than it did before. But it still has work to do. To start, Generations United recommends: 

  • Support quality kinship navigator programs, which link grandfamilies to the benefits and services they need.

  • Promote financial equity with a kinship caregiver tax credit, improving access to foster care maintenance payments and TANF.

  • Implement recommendations of this advisory report to Congress, including changing workplace policies to recognize grandfamilies' needs and improving their access to respite care, child care, and counseling.

  • Support grandfamilies as part of opioid settlement funds.

Learn more in Generations United State of Grandfamilies annual reports. 2021: Reinforcing a Strong Foundation: Equitable Supports for Basic Needs of Grandfamilies, and 2022: Together at the Table: Supporting the Nutrition, Health, and Well-Being of Grandfamilies.

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 creating the conditions for communities across the nation to thrive, and to ensuring that our policies, systems and environments help children and their families access the resources needed to maintain a healthy weight.