Texans who take custody of their relatives’ kids struggle to make ends meet
Relative caregivers, like grandparents who want to keep kids out of foster care, usually get half as much state assistance as strangers who take in children.
When Beverly Morris moved six of her grandchildren into her apartment, it was cramped quarters on every front.
The two-bedroom unit sat off of a highway in Austin. The three girls — ages 8, 14 and 15 — slept in one room. The three boys — ages 7, 10 and 12 — slept in the other. The living room sofa became Morris’ bed for a year.
Morris took permanent custody of five of her six grandkids after Child Protective Services removed them from their home after finding evidence of medical neglect and parental substance use.
Morris hadn’t planned to parent again at 63 years old. But she stepped in to prevent her grandchildren from entering Texas’ troubled foster care system and being separated from each other. She also informally took in the sixth grandchild, after one of their parents stopped caring for them. The state pays Morris to care for the five grandchildren for whom she has permanent custody, but she gets a fraction of the amount that a stranger who stepped in as a foster parent would get.
That’s something some Texas lawmakers are trying to change this year.
The costs piled up for Morris, seemingly all at once: The kids needed summer clothes. The car kept breaking down on the way to school. Morris felt like the world was closing in on her.
“I would just cry every night. I cried and I was like, ‘God, I’m not doing this, I don’t want to do it,’” said Morris, who quit her job to take care of the children. “I’m living as a single person. And then to take in six kids? It was hard.”
Morris offers what is known as kinship care, when a relative takes in children who have been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services. More than 8,000 kids, or 41.5% of children in the state’s care, were placed with kin or relatives as of February, according to recent state data.
As a relative caregiver, Morris gets about $2,000 in assistance from the state each month to support the cost of caring for the kids. She puts it toward rent. At the very least, she reminds herself, the kids will have a roof over their heads.
Studies show children in the care of relatives experience less trauma and better behavioral health outcomes than those in the care of foster families. Relative caregivers are also more likely to be single, unemployed, older and live in poorer households.
In addition to receiving far less compensation than foster parents, relative caregivers also often face the typical barriers lower-income Texans experience in getting public benefits like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
When relatives take in children who have interacted with the Texas child welfare system, the state provides some financial assistance, depending on family circumstances.
If the child has an open case with Child Protective Services, relatives can receive $12.67 per day, per child for up to 12 months through the Relative and Other Designated Caregiver Program. To qualify, residents must earn a total household income that is below 300% of the federal poverty limit. For a family of four, that would be less than $90,000.
The payments to relative caregivers are often 50% of what a foster parent receives. A foster parent receives at least $27.07 per day, but can get paid more if a child has more complex needs. Foster parents have to complete training and get licensed before they take in a child, unlike relative caregivers.
A relative caregiver can choose to complete the training foster parents do and get “verified” by the state. That would allow them to get paid the same as foster parents. But Mercedes Bristol, a grandparent of five, said families have to go through a lot of red tape to get verified. For example, the relative’s home must pass a state assessment. Some grandparents have been asked to make costly home repairs or find a house with more square footage to meet the home assessment, Bristol said. For aging relatives on fixed incomes, such fixes are cost prohibitive.
“They’re not doing it for the money. They’re not doing it for the income,” said Bristol, who is also the executive director of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. “They’re doing it just to be able to afford to keep these children but yet they have so many barriers to get to that stipend.”
One grandparent raising three grandchildren in Cibolo, Denise Smith, said she looked into getting verified. But to complete the training, she would have needed to find and pay for child care.
Smith needed the extra money from the state. After she took in grandkids, she walked a tightrope with her finances for years. She was always falling behind. Overdue bills stuffed her mailbox.
She would dial utility assistance companies. The operators would mimic each other, saying they could help with the last $50 of your bill. It was never enough.
“To say to a family that you’ll pay the last $50 or the last $100 when you have a $500 utility bill,” Smith said. “That means you still gotta keep looking for who’s going to help you. There were a lot of times when we had to do that.”
Smith would forget to eat. She developed high blood pressure. Research shows high blood pressure, among other poor health outcomes, is a condition of poverty.
“I remember the doctor telling me, well, you have to get rid of the stress. But I can’t tell you to do that because that means you’d have to get rid of kids,” Smith said. “So all we can do is give you medication.”
She recounts this now, but she doesn’t know how she lived through it. Sometimes, it feels more like a fever dream than her real life.
If a Child Protective Services case is closed and a kinship caregiver gets legal custody of a child, relatives can seek assistance through the permanency care assistance program. Monthly payments are between $400 to $545 per month for each child, depending upon the child’s needs.
Kinship caregivers can look to public benefits for another source of assistance. SNAP food benefits, known as food stamps, cover the cost of groceries. Relatives can also get a one-time $1,000 payment through the TANF program.
But both SNAP and TANF are entangled with red tape, too. The value of families’ cars is factored into how much SNAP and TANF aid they are entitled to, kicking some caregivers off the programs entirely.
“I needed a car to take them to school, to doctor’s appointments, to day care,” said Bristol, with Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. “I needed a car to keep my job, but yet they counted my car and therefore I wasn’t eligible for one-time $1,000 TANF [payment].”
Some Texas lawmakers want to pay relatives like Smith more money to care for kids.
In the Senate, Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, is proposing Senate Bill 908, which would remove the eligibility requirements to getting verified. In the lower chamber, Rep. Lacey Hull, R-Houston, has authored the identical House Bill 2613. Neither bill has yet to be scheduled for a committee hearing, an early step in the legislative process that’s vital if they’re going to move forward.
Rep. Terry Meza, D-Irving, filed House Bill 1431, which would remove the eligibility requirements for the relative and other designated caregiver program. But her bill has also not yet been scheduled for a debate.
“In the past, the state of Texas has felt like if grandma takes in her grandson, she should be willing to do that without any payment,” Meza told The Texas Tribune. “But grandma is on a fixed income, maybe, probably, likely. And taking on her grandson, even though she’s willing to, may present a financial burden on her.”
The Texas Legislature last increased payments for relative caregivers in 2017. That legislation’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, at the time said the payments would mean fewer children would end up in the foster care system.
Five years after the passing of that 2017 bill, a panel of child welfare experts said the Department of Family and Protective Services was still underutilizing kinship care and failing to provide adequate support for relative caregivers. That included the disparity in what relatives caring for kids get paid compared to strangers. The panel was authorized by a federal judge in a long-running lawsuit to make a list of recommendations for the state agency. The panel said that in addition to paying kinship caregivers more to provide for kids, Texas could also better support relatives by helping them navigate the foster care system and connect them with more resources.
“Kinship caregivers are a backbone of child welfare systems,” the 2022 report said. “There is compelling evidence that children placed with kin experience increased stability, improved well-being and behavioral health outcomes, and high levels of permanency than children placed with strangers.”
Lingering at the Capitol
On a recent Sunday, Morris readied all six of her grandchildren for church.
They had just celebrated a birthday; the oldest has just turned 15. Morris was planning to keep the balloons up. With six children under one roof, the next birthday is never too far away.
But the youngest had other plans. With one swoop, he popped the balloons inside their apartment at breakfast.
“Go brush your teeth. Go, go,” she told him, in one strong, unwavering command. She still reminds herself she has to be a parent first, and a grandparent second.
She had 45 minutes to pack the six kids in her car. And she still needed to wake up her 14-year-old granddaughter.
Her thoughts were also on the future. Morris isn’t sure how she’ll make ends meet three years down the road, when the oldest turns 18 and her assistance from the state gets cut.
“How come a kinship can’t get the same amount of money? I’m doing the same amount of work,” Morris said, who will be 74 years old when the youngest turns 18. “Why is there such a big ol’ gap between if you’re kinship and if you’re a foster parent?”
As bills that could help Morris and other kinship caregivers linger, Sen. José Menéndez, D-San Antonio, said many lawmakers don’t see how hard it can be for caregivers, clawing their way out of poverty, to put food on the table or pay for baby formula.
“They’re so far removed from what it would be like to have a financial struggle,” Menéndez said. “Some people literally don’t have the extra money. They don’t, they don’t, they don’t. It’s hard for (legislators) to understand that.”