An extra $225 a month would have been a godsend for Natalia Espinoza when she was raising her grandson.
The toddler was removed from his parents’ home by the Arizona Department of Child Safety due to allegations of neglect when he was just 10 months old. The state sent Espinoza $75 a month to support himself, a fraction of what adoptive parents receive to do the same: keep the children safe, feed them, clothe them, transport them to medical visits, in school and other activities.
Governor Doug Ducey wants to erase this imbalance.
He proposes increasing the monthly payment to $300, which would put close caregivers on the same payment the state provides to foster parents. He also wants to create a faster route for family caregivers to obtain a foster license, which would provide federal matching to the state payment and increase monthly support to more than $600.
Those are the key points of a policy he alluded to in his state of the state address on Monday. More details will come in a pair of bills and in the governor’s budget, which will be revealed on Friday.
“These loving extended family members should have the same resources as any other foster family,” the governor said. “We’ll make sure of that this year.”
Potential game-changer for families
Espinoza said the extra dollars would have made all the difference.
“You bet,” she said, her days as a carer now over. “What I had to do, I had to do.”
After three years of struggling as a widow to raise her grandson, she adopted him in 2007 so she could access her Social Security payments. The boy’s parents had abandoned him, making him an orphan if she didn’t intervene.
The governor’s proposal, which requires legislative approval, could be a game-changer, said Molly Dunn, director of child protection and juvenile justice at the Arizona Children’s Action Alliance. More than 6,000 children currently in the DCS system are cared for by grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family members.
Other child protection advocates agreed the plan would be a big improvement, but said they would cautiously await how the idea evolves as it makes its way through the Legislative Assembly. .
Victoria Gray said the funding, if it materialized, would be a boon to many elderly relatives she works with. This could eliminate the need to make tough decisions about household expenses, she said.
“You wouldn’t have to skip the medications you need,” Gray said of caregivers with health issues. Skipping medication just creates another set of problems, she added.
A faster host license is also possible
In recent years, efforts to increase the allowance by $75 were a laudable idea that failed when it comes to the state budget. The program is estimated at approximately $25 million per year, a permanent increase in the DCS budget.
Other lawmakers have argued that families are expected to step in when another family member is in trouble and shouldn’t need money to do so.
But with Ducey making increasing the payout a priority and state coffers full of cash, the proposal has a good chance.
Ducey also wants to make it easier for relatives to get a foster license. He wants DCS to cut a typical six-month process down to 30 days and waive some of the non-security requirements, such as a limit on the number of children who can stay in a room.
Many kinship families rejected the formal foster route, even though it could provide more money and access to more services, because of the extra time and hoops involved.
Dunn of the Children’s Action Alliance said the proposal would help retain family carers more than recruit them.
“My instinct is that most parents step in and take their kids in, rather than sending them to a stranger or a group home,” she said.
But childcare costs that a grandparent or family member didn’t plan for can be overwhelming.
“Accepting kinship can plunge people into deep poverty,” she said.
Extra support can make a big difference
Robert Lee recently ended his tenure as a family caregiver.
A monthly stipend of $300 would have helped a lot, he said, especially right after his infant grandson arrived home.
“We went into this business with nothing,” Lee said of himself and his wife. “We didn’t have things like strollers and bassinets and changing tables and all that. So yeah, that would have helped.”
The couple received $122 in monthly state support: the $75 allowance, plus 95 cents a day for the child’s personal allowance (for things like food and other essentials) and 53 cents a day for clothes.
He said they have benefited from many charities that have helped them get the necessities needed to care for a baby.
Lee said he always wondered why the state didn’t “equalize” the payments it made to caregivers in the DCS system.
“Why does it cost $122 for a foster family and $700 a month for a standard foster (placement)?” Lee said. “The carbon footprint is the same.”
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