A Nov. 7 Metro article about a D.C. Council bill to provide a monthly stipend to adults who are raising their grandchildren mischaracterized the views of Rob Geen, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute. The article incorrectly implied that Geen opposes requiring grandparents to undergo a background check. Geen's position is that background checks by the District's child welfare agency, which would be reviewing applications for legal custody from grandparents seeking the stipend, would be essential in such a program. (Published 11/10/2005)-----A Nov. 7 Metro article about a D.C. Council bill to provide a monthly stipend to adults who are raising their grandchildren misstated the income guidelines in the proposed program. To qualify, grandparents would need to have a household income of no more than 200 percent of the federal poverty line. For a household of three, the maximum income would be $32,180 a year, not $16,090 as the article stated. (Published 11/19/2005)
Lateaisha Brooks, 12, and her grandmother Delephine Jones, 76, sat on the couch on a recent afternoon after school and together tried to guess what would happen on a TV soap opera. Soon, Lateaisha's sister, Johnnetta Brooks, 14, would arrive at the two-bedroom apartment in Southwest and remind her grandmother that she needed $20 for her Friday night bowling trip.
The children were not simply visiting with Grandma. They have lived with Jones and her husband, Jake, 72, since their mother's death in 1999.
Jones, a retired D.C. schools employee, lives on a fixed income of about $1,300 a month, largely cobbled together from public benefits. She said she uses just about all of it on her $559 rent, groceries to feed the two growing girls and costs associated with the extracurricular activities they enjoy, such as clothes for ushering at church or a dress for a dance recital.
She can't recall the last time she went shopping for herself. "I want them to have before me," she said.
Jones and hundreds of other grandparents in similar circumstances may soon get some financial help. The D.C. Council is considering a bill that would provide a monthly stipend to adults raising their grandchildren if they meet income and other requirements. If the legislation passes next month, advocates for the elderly and experts say, the District would be among only a handful of jurisdictions in the country to establish a subsidy for caregivers who are not part of the foster care system.
According to the 2000 Census, 8,100 people in the District are raising grandchildren. The reasons range from a parent's unexpected death to issues involving drugs or mental illness.
The D.C. office of AARP, the main force behind the bill, convened a grandparents focus group in 2003, published a report and has lobbied council members for more than a year.
Mimi Castaldi, director of AARP District of Columbia, said that the grandparent caregivers in the focus group faced several challenges but that nearly all of them came down to finances.
"If a grandparent has stepped in to take care of the children before they go into the foster care system, why can't we give the same support to a grandparent that a foster parent would receive for caring for the same child?" Castaldi said.
Under the bill, sponsored by council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), the stipend would equal what the city provides to a long-term permanent guardian of a foster child: about $718 to $791 per month per child, depending on the youngster's age and the amount of other public benefits received. The grandparent would have to have legal custody of the child, submit to a background check and meet other requirements, such as having an income of no more than $16,090 a year in a household of three.
Supporters say the cost of the subsidy would be much less than what the city winds up paying when a grandparent cannot afford to raise a child, who then must be placed in foster care, which can cost up to $80,000 a year, according to the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency.
The District has about 2,700 foster children in its care, while roughly 16,700 children live in grandparent-headed households, the agency said.
The city has set aside $2 million in its 2006 budget to fund the grandparents program for one year on a first-come, first-served basis.
According to a report from the council's Committee on Human Services, although foster parents receive nearly $800 per month per child, the only public resource available to a caregiver outside the foster care system is welfare, at roughly $239 a month.
Richard Wexler, director of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, praised the bill for rewarding adults who take care of children not in foster care. "We pay far more to strangers than we will give to family to help take care of their own," Wexler said.
But Rob Geen, a senior researcher at the Urban Institute who has studied children in foster care and children being raised by relatives, said some grandparents may shy away from the program because features such as the background check would require them to interact with child welfare officials.
"Why should there be any special requirements just because we are showing enough common decency to provide these grandparents with some extra help?" Geen said.
AARP officials said that if the bill passes, they will start a campaign to educate grandparents on how to meet the requirements, including assistance with filing for legal custody.
Some grandparents don't foresee enrolling in such a program, however, even though they could use the money. Eleanor Wood, 82, is raising three grandchildren in Southwest. She said that the subsidy is an excellent idea for some grandparents but that she might not apply because she does not want to have legal custody of her grandchildren. That step, she said, would go too far in reducing her daughter's role.
"Let her feel some of the responsibility," Wood said.
Jones, on the other hand, is interested in the program, saying it is the only way she might be able to realize her life's dream of buying a house. She doesn't have a savings account, she said, because her income is depleted by basic expenses and whatever comes up. Just last week, she got word that it would cost an extra $50 for Johnnetta's glasses because her special lenses are not covered by insurance.
The bills never end, Jones said with a good-humored laugh. But when she attended the AARP focus group and heard other grandparents complain that the job of being a parent again was overwhelming, Jones advised them to stick with it.
"I told them, 'Don't give your children up.' You keep your grandkids, because it's not their fault."