Coalition says grandparents as foster parents need more help

Sunday, June 2, 2002

Unable to work because of a spinal cord injury, Jim Cleaveland's only income is a monthly Social Security disability check. His wife, Judy, is retired from her bank job and now works at a Kansas City area Wal-Mart to help make ends meet.

The Cleavelands say the two of them can get by. But there is an extra expense in their lives: raising a 4-year-old granddaughter.

"We are not starving, but anything would help, dollar-wise," Jim Cleaveland, 62, said Friday. So the Cleavelands applied for and received a monthly state stipend of $136 through Missouri's Grandparents as Foster Parents Program.

The program was providing monthly cash assistance to 1,280 grandparents caring for 2,336 children under age 18 during April, the latest numbers available.

That reflects a decline of about 300 grandchildren receiving assistance since last August, when the law authorizing the program was overhauled to reduce spending.

A coalition of support groups for these silver-haired stand-in caregivers say the state should do more -- noting that lawmakers last year reduced stipends for grandparents to 75 percent of the amount paid per child to foster parents. An income means test was also imposed.

"These grandparents are helping save a generation of children, and many are using all of their savings to do it," said Lois Fitzpatrick of Kansas City, who chairs the Missouri Grandparents/Kinship Care Coalition.

The coalition, with several hundred members, provides education, resources and advocacy for grandparents raising the third generation.

44,000 in Missouri

U.S. Census numbers released last week indicated a boom in the number of grandparents serving as principal caregivers for grandchildren. There are nearly 44,000 such grandparents in Missouri alone, according to the 2000 survey and headcount.

Experts say there are a variety of reasons grandparents are thrust into this role after raising their own children -- divorces, drug and alcohol abuse, abandonment, custody disputes between parents, deaths and illnesses.

"We also have much higher rates of single parenthood today than just a few years ago, and many of these parents are seeking the help of their own parents," said Teresa Cooney, associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Senate Appropriations chairman John Russell, R-Lebanon and a grandfather of seven, praises the Grandparents as Foster Parents program but said its spending was reduced because of tight state general revenues.

Still, Russell said, the legislature should "reconsider the equity in this situation, the contrast between financial aid for foster parents versus grandparents."

"This decision was economics-driven, but I think this is a program that probably works. If these kids are growing and needing longer blue jeans every few months, it gets very expensive. Those jeans cost the same for grandparents as they do foster parents," Russell said Friday.

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