Caregivers to Lawmakers: Strengthen Help for Kinship Families

(May 24, 2021) – As a growing family dynamic, more and more grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives are raising families all over again in heartbreak because of challenging social ills – opioid misuse, mental health illness, poverty, child abuse and parental incarceration.

Kinship caregivers from Northern and Southeast Michigan came together in two open online forums on Monday to urge their state lawmakers to make policy changes to better support their families and young grandchildren, many of whom suffer from early trauma and ongoing disabilities and learning challenges. The elders say the cost for needed remedies, along with court costs tied to guardianship and custodial questions, are stripping them of their limited fixed incomes, retirement savings, financial security, and even causing delays in planned retirements. Moreover, they say changes are needed to help children from challenging circumstances have a better chance for success in life.

In Michigan, 54,000 children are being raised by a relative with no parent in the home, and 4,700 more children are being raised by a relative through the state’s foster care system, according to the Michigan Kinship Care Resource Center. Advocates and caregivers told legislators Monday about inequities in resources provided caregivers who become foster parents in the state’s welfare system versus those who opt to assume responsibilities as court-assigned guardians. A majority of speakers said they were guided to become guardians rather than risk seeing their grandchildren and great-grandchildren enter foster care, where they feared they could be placed away from them. The trade-off is that children living with relative guardians rather than foster care parents end up with less guaranteed state help, they said.

Deb Frisbie, policy co-chair of the Michigan Kinship Care Coalition, and her husband have parented their granddaughter and grandson for the past 18 years, even relocating to Northern Michigan from West Michigan for a better environment for the children. They have since adopted them.

“There are few resources for those children in the informal system, whether limited guardians or full guardianship,” Frisbie said. “Everyone on this call wants equity for our families. There is no equity when you’re in informal care because children don’t receive maintenance payments, receive little financial support and as far as educational needs and medical resources and services, that is not available to children not in formal care.”

The forums were billed as community conversations and sponsored by the Michigan Kinship Care Coalition, Adoptive Family Support Network, The Guidance Center in Detroit, Oakland Livingston Human Services Agency, and Michigan’s Children. Legislators who attended the forums were: State Sen. Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit; state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, D-Detroit; state Rep. Cara Clemente, D-Lincoln Park; state Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac; state Rep. Mark Tisdel, R-W. Bloomfield; state Sen. Curt Vanderwall, R-Ludington; state Rep. Jack O’Malley, R-Lake Ann; state Rep. Ken Borton, R-Gaylord; and state Rep. John Roth, R-Traverse City. Others joining were Judge John Meade, Benzie County 85th District Court, and Carrie Norman, Family and Child Specialist.

Sharon Kite of Northern Michigan adopted two of her daughter’s children, now 10 and 12, years after they came to her following a drug raid on their parents’ home. Kite’s grandsons were 20 months old and a 4 years old at the time. “We were petrified at the possibility of the boys being taken from us. We couldn’t afford an attorney and had no idea how to start, who to call or turn to,” she said. “Through research and calling every attorney that would give us free advice, we decided to petition the court to end our Temporary Guardianship and go for full adoption. Our biggest fear starting this was that the boys’ lives would be disrupted and they would be removed. Termination of parental rights is not an easy process.”

Frisbie said Michigan is a strong parental rights state but legal protections are needed for relative caregivers too. Kite agreed. Forty-four other states have laws giving grandparents rights to pursue custody of their grandchildren under certain conditions. Michigan is not one of them.

Kite say that families like hers could have been helped if Michigan had a Kinship Advisory Council or a Navigator program as other states have to help kinship families work through complicated court systems, custodial options, and learn where to turn for services and financial help that children need. Two bills that would have established those lifelines were approved by the state Legislature last session but vetoed on a technicality by Governor Whitmer. Advocates are seeking sponsors to reintroduce those bills this session and work with administrative sources.

Lawmakers on the calls this week said they’re sympathetic to the issues kinship families face and are willing to learn more.

Rep. Aiyash said it’s a widespread issue among his constituents in the Detroit area, and pledged to help.

“It’s an issue that obviously needs to be addressed. We’re seeing more and more grandparents become custodial and caregivers for children,” Rep. O’Malley said. “The old nuclear family I knew as a snot-nosed kid isn’t the same anymore. I’m looking to be better informed to make better decisions.”

“This is a true, real thing,” agreed Rep. Roth, who like Aiyash is a freshman lawmaker. Roth said he’s encountered numerous grandparents and other relatives raising children as he’s knocked doors in his district. “I appreciate being brought in on this very important conversation.”

To view a recording of the Northern Michigan forum from May 24, 2021, click here.

To learn more about relative caregivers and their needs, read our brief, Critical Issues in Foster Care: Kinship Care.