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Grandparents Make All the Difference for Traumatized Kids

A new report shows the powerful impact of living with loving relatives

By Sally Abrahms

"One thing I’ve noticed is that most people go to Grandma’s house and get spoiled, but for me it was the only safe place I had," said Chad Dingle, who was raised by his grandmother in Oregon. "Getting to live with Grandma was like ‘going to Grandma’s house’ all the time. I had more love there than anywhere else in my life."

Credit: Adobe Stock

A national report released Sept. 11, which quotes Dingle, confirms that “grandfamilies” — where grandparents are raising grandchildren or other relatives — can be a godsend.

The 2017 State of Grandfamilies report, “In Loving Arms: the Protective Role of Grandparents and Other Relatives in Raising Children Exposed to Trauma,” published by the nonprofit Generations United, points to the enormous benefits of having a kinship caregiver.

Among them: better mental and behavioral health outcomes than for kids raised in foster care with non-relatives; more stability and a greater sense of belonging and feeling loved compared non-family foster care; a supportive, extended family network; continued cultural identity and increased resiliency and healing from trauma.

Add to that safer childhoods and a better chance of having a permanent home with the grandparents (if the kids can’t go back to their parents). Those children who do get reunited with their parents are also less likely to go back into foster care.

The most important factor for overcoming a history of abuse or neglect, the report notes, is having a supportive relationship with caring adults. It only takes one grandparent or relative. And yet, relatives who take in children are less likely to receive supports and services.

Grandfamilies by the Numbers

The foster care system is increasingly relying on relatives to step up. Today, 30 percent of kids in foster care, or 127,819, are being raised by relatives — a 6 percentage point jump from 2008.

Nearly 2.6 million children in kinship care are raised by a relative, whether or not they are in foster care. And, here’s the kicker: for every child in the welfare system living with relatives, there are 20 kids in grandfamilies who are not in foster care.

Contributing to the deluge is the opioid crisis. Other factors are parental incarceration, substance abuse, mental illness and death.

Pervasive Prior Trauma Among Foster Care Children

Many kids living in grandfamilies have had four or more “adverse childhood experiences,” or ACEs. These include emotional, physical or sexual abuse; parental substance use and chronic neglect.

Consider these other findings:

  • 38 percent of foster kids have had four or more ACEs by their third birthday
  • Multiple ACEs can lead to physical, mental and behavioral health problems both in childhood and as an adult (suicide attempts, substance abuse, aggression, risky sexual behavior, cognitive impairment, shoddy work performance, high blood pressure)
  • Children with four or more ACEs are 12 times more likely to have poor health outcomes than their peers in the overall population
  • Kids in foster care are five times more likely to have anxiety, depression and/or behavioral problems than their counterparts not in foster care.

Why, then, are these grandparents and other family members less likely to receive supports and services that address the children’s trauma than non-related foster parents, the report asks?

The 2017 report finds that kids in kinship arrangements exposed to trauma who receive a specific kind of treatment plan and comprehensive services (known as “trauma-informed” care), tend to do best. These supports can include case management, mental health such as individual and family therapy, support groups and kinship navigator programs (wraparound family assistance).

Challenges for Grandfamilies

The challenges for grandparents in grandfamilies start with finances. Many grandparents and other relatives become caregivers in a crisis, meaning unexpectedly. Forty percent are over 60. They may be living on a fixed income. Likely, there was no prior plan to bankroll another person — feed them, replenish their outgrown clothes and perhaps pay legal fees for custody or guardianship, or college tuition.

Grandparents may be saving for retirement or have saved just enough for themselves. Or, they may be forced to move from their one-bedroom senior housing unit that forbids kids or another current space that suddenly becomes too small.

Fifty-seven percent of these caregivers are employed and may have to make workplace accommodations, whether that’s reducing their hours or quitting altogether. Again, that’s less money to go around.

Many kin caregivers don’t have much to begin with. Twenty percent of grandparents live in poverty; half of all single grandmothers raising grandchildren are also at the poverty level.

Licensed vs. Non-Licensed

The majority of kinship caregivers are not licensed foster parents — some states don’t even offer them licensing — so they may not receive monthly payments the way licensed non-family foster parents do.

Unlicensed grandfamilies are typically eligible for money through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, but it is far below what they would get if they were licensed. Yet they may not know TANF exists or be able to access it.


Without that foster care license, they also are not afforded the same services foster parents can get. And if the kin caregiver outside the foster system does not have a legal relationship (guardianship, custody) with the child, supports may be even more elusive.

Another challenge: Many grandparents have no training in dealing with grandkids who may be depressed, anxious, angry, have experienced PTSD or have an array of other emotions, from guilt to rejection.

In addition, kin caregivers may be dealing with their own grief or loss (a death of their own child or an inability to care for them). There’s a huge disruption in their life and a complicated balancing act with their spouse and family.

And, don’t forget medical issues. According to the report, 25 percent of grandparents have a disability.

4 of the Major Report Recommendations

The report offered several recommendations to improve the lives of grandfamilies. Here are four of them:

1. Keep kids out of foster care. The report notes that grandfamilies save taxpayers $4 billion a year by keeping children out of foster care. When kids cannot stay with their parents, the report says, place them with relatives as a first option.

2. Educate legislators and communities about the value of providing services and programs for grandfamilies — and get leaders to act. Make sure they allocate money for these purposes. That could include: having states receive federal reimbursement for kinship navigator services; protecting federal money for Medicaid and the Children’s Insurance Program (CHIP) and adding kinship-family kids to grandparents’ health plans.

Under the National Family Caregiver Support Program, states can allocate 10 percent of what they receive through the program to grandfamilies. They don’t always use the full amount. There is a direct connection between grandfamilies receiving special trauma support and fewer returns to the child welfare system.

The report also recommends that Area Agencies on Aging work with local mental health centers and other providers to make services available.

Families as a whole — not just the children — need community-based help for such issues as mental health (individual and family therapy), child and respite care, and employment counseling, as well as financial and legal fees, the report notes.

To learn the best practices for grandfamilies and which services are working well, one recommendation in the report is to create not only federal, but state task forces to share ideas and information.

3. Do a better job of outreach. Offer mental health help, including specific trauma training, in a variety of venues and make it easy to access, whether this is at a medical center, school or through a faith-based group, private foundation or service provider.

Let grandfamilies know what type of federal aid is available. It turns out that less than half of eligible children in these situations receive Medicaid.

A few states, such as Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Texas, have begun licensing family members as “therapeutic foster parents” offering that trauma-tailored therapy.

4. Eliminate hurdles to licensing relatives. That would give grandparents more money and services. (Generations United, along with the federal government, the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation developed the Model Family Foster Home Licensing Standards to address these barriers.)

Sally Abrahms is an award-winning writer specializing in aging, caregiving, boomers, housing and aging in place.  She has written for Next Avenue, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time, AARP, Kiplinger's and other media outlets. Her website is Read More
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