ALBANY — Georgia lawmakers met with area officials Tuesday at the SOWEGA Council on Aging as part of a three-city study committee aimed at improving the lot of grandparents or other family members who are raising young children.
Heading up the group is state Rep. Stacey Y. Abrams, D-Atlanta, who earlier this year proposed HR 474, a bill to fund examination of a growing situation in which family members — often grandparents — care for children who are not their own, though with little state support.
In fact, according to Abrams, while Georgia has one of the largest and fastest-rising populations of such family situations — nearly 100,000 at last count — for reasons including death of the parents, military deployment or incarceration, the caregivers often receive less than half the funding that official foster parents get.
“The questions are, how do you help these families navigate the system and how do you help them afford to take care of the children?” Abrams said. “In the foster care program, you receive resources for food, clothing, transportation and respite care. People come and take care of you. The informal (family) system offers much less, or even nothing”
While funding is a major issue, Abrams said “legalities” can often pose difficulties for the well-meaning caregivers. For example, some of the children are drug-addicted at birth and may continue to have special needs. But schools and medical providers may not recognize the family members’ authority.
“There’s a process for special-needs children,” Abrams said, “But if you’re not the parent of record, if you don’t have legal custody, schools may or may not work with you. Caregivers may not even be able to sign doctors’ forms.”
Officials say the two main types of “kinship care” include private or informal care under an arrangement where extended family members raise the children without the involvement of the Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), and “public” kinship care, where families care for children involved with the child welfare system.
In either case, Abrams says, research has shown that children growing up in the generally more stable and nurturing homes provided by family members are less likely to experience behavioral problems, psychiatric disorders and school disruptions.
“More formality is not the goal we’re looking for,” Abrams said. “In creating a study group, we’re looking at whether we can create parity (with the foster system) and increase access to support. More than that, we want to make certain that as a state we’re doing what’s best for children because we want them to be with people who love them. That may not be the same as placing them in a foster care system.”
According to Abrams, the objective of the group’s community meetings is to hear comments from those involved with family members raising children not their own, and especially the elderly caregivers themselves, though such comments were absent from Tuesday’s meeting. Using information gathered, the group hopes to improve the situation for caregivers, Abrams said.
In addition to Abrams, Georgia lawmakers present at the meeting included state Reps. Tom Kirby, R-Loganville; Dexter Sharper, D-Valdosta, and Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson.
Other members of the study committee include state Reps. Karen Bennett, D-Stone Mountain; John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain, and Sam Teasley, R-Marietta.
“This is a program that’s needed in Albany,” said Juanita Nixon, executive director of Cutliff Grove Family Resource Center, who spoke at the meeting. “We have so many grandparents here who need help, not only in dollars but in basic support from one day to the next.
“If we could all partner together and try to get some funds to get this program going, I think we’ll see better communication in schools and our community. Children can’t learn as well because they don’t have the tools they need.”
Before the Albany session, the study committee conducted meetings in Atlanta and Dalton, Abrams said. The representatives will later conduct a meeting in Savannah and one more in Atlanta before considering solutions to the issues.