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As More Relatives Care For Arizona Children, Grant To Offer Resources Runs Out

(Photo Courtesy of the Gray family)
Gray family photo from 2012. From left to right: Evaughn, Alexis, DeJanaria, Isaiah, Alexander, Victoria, Andre, Gentry and DeAnthony.

Dinner is served cafeteria style in the Gray's home. Children form a line to get helpings of fish sticks, corn on the cob and fried cabbage.

“Grandma cookin', you gonna have to eat what grandma cooks," said Victoria Gray, 64.

Gray and her husband Gentry, 79, are raising five of their grandchildren. Her daughter, the mother of these children, is recently out of prison and struggling with addiction.

“We went back to work,” Victoria Gray said. “It helps to keep the budget together.”

Gentry Gray had just retired from his first career at the post office when the Grays got their two oldest grandkids. They were able to get the grandparent stipend from the Department of Child Safety, which is $75 a month per kid.

Victoria Gray said her grocery bill more than doubled once she took in her five youngest grandchildren.

“I thought ok, I can feed them this week. But what do I do about next week? We were already dipping into our savings, we were taking some chunk out of our 401K," she said.

The Grays were known, officially, as “kinship caregivers.” In 2014, 18 percent of the state’s kinship caregivers were older than 61, according to DCS data.

Victoria Gray had a knee replacement a few years ago; she’s limited in how much she can play with her grandchildren.

“I’m not jumping rope with the girls,” she said. “Not unless a paramedic is waiting on the curb."

Eventually, the Grays became licensed foster parents and adopted their grandchildren. As licensed foster parents, they were able to get almost nine times more in monthly state aid than unlicensed kinship caregivers.

But there are thousands of other families who don’t make that leap. Nearly half of the more than 17,000 Arizona kids in out-of-home care are living with relatives.    

“These 8,000 or so children in kinship care are 8,000 or so licensed foster beds that the agency doesn’t have to locate," said DCS kinship specialist Lauri Devine.

There aren’t enough foster families for the number of kids in the system. DCS reported in March a net increase of 36 foster homes. It’s a lengthy and time-consuming process, Devine said, to become a licensed foster family. In 2014, only 15 percent of kinship caregivers had become successfully complete the process.

Meanwhile, since many of the kids in unlicensed kinship care are between 3 and 5 years old, families who aren’t licensed only get $19 a month per kid.

“That is not enough for a Happy Meal a week,” Devine said.

Which is where Arizona Kinship Support Services come in. The program, run through Arizona Children’s Association, helps families get access to federal benefits such as childcare subsidies and food assistance.

The kinship navigators also help relatives get through voluminous packets of legal paperwork necessary to enroll the kids in school and take them to the doctor.

At one of the group's free classes to help kin caregivers, Phoenix attorney Melissa Ho guides relatives page-by-page through the forms they need to fill out to become temporary guardians.

Program director Julie Treinen said much of the funding for these services has been provided through a three-year federal grant. 

“They also need emotional support,” Treinen said. “We provide support groups where they can come and talk to other caregivers that are similarly situated.”

The kinship group reports it has helped more than 4,000 caregiver households in Maricopa, Pima, Pinal and Cochise counties access benefits. Results show by diverting a portion of these children and families from entering the formal foster care system DCS was saved more than $4 million. Treinen estimates these savings by calculating how much it would have cost the state to house these kids in formal foster homes or in group homes.   

The grant that funds these navigators runs out Sept. 30.

“We’ve got a couple of funding options that we are still trying to pursue,” Treinen said. “We can only provide services we have the funding for.”

She is concerned the group's navigation services will have to be greatly reduced if not completely eliminated without more funding.

Alexandra Olgin was a Senior Field Correspondent at KJZZ from 2013 to 2016.