Today’s blog post is a guest piece written by Kristina Brant, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Harvard University, and a member of the Fahe-hosted Central Appalachian Research Network (CARN). Kristina’s piece focuses on the gaps in policy around Kinship Care and how these already vulnerable households are facing increased hardships and dangers due to the COVID-19 crisis.
One of the ways Fahe works to provide stability and financial security to families and communities is by increasing access to drug and alcohol recovery, especially to underserved rural areas. We work with local recovery experts, governmental officials, and our Members on such programs as the Transformative Employment Program and Kentucky Access to Recovery as well as heading up a Drug Recovery Task Force. In Appalachia, Kinship Care often comes about due to a parent facing drug charges. As more communities explore recovery as an alternative to incarceration, access to recovery services may provide an avenue for parents to be reunited with their children.
Research like Kristina’s peels back the layers of story that go beyond a bank statement or mortgage application to provide insight to where we can provide greater service to our communities. Fahe is increasing our research capabilities while also collaborating with others to produce and publish research about Appalachia and other underinvested areas to inform future directions to bring long term change to persistent poverty regions and highlight the voices of underserved people. Supported with greater knowledge, Fahe, Members, and Partner organizations can lead change and increase opportunity.
Contact Katy Stigers, Research Director, to join the growing list of scholars in the CARN.
Over the last decade, communities in Central Appalachia have witnessed a dramatic rise in the number of families in kinship care arrangements—grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other relatives raising children. Nationally, 4% of children are being raised by relatives without a biological parent present. But in Kentucky, the rate of kinship care is 8%—double the national average. This statewide total masks the even larger variation within the state. Some school districts in Eastern Kentucky estimate that as many as 40% of their students are being raised by relatives or close family friends.1
The growing prevalence of kinship care in Central Appalachia can be traced to the opioid crisis—and more specifically, our particularly punitive response to addiction. Over the last decade, jail admissions have declined in cities and suburbs but have risen in rural communities. Communities in rural Central Appalachia now possess some of the highest rates of jail incarceration in the country. In Kentucky specifically, jail admissions for low-level felony drug possession charges increased by 102% between 2012-2016, and admissions for parole revocations increased by 50%, driven largely by technical violations like failed drug tests. These increases in drug convictions and drug-related supervision revocations increased female jail admissions by 54%, propelling Kentucky’s female imprisonment rate to twice the national average.
Amid rising drug incarceration rates, relatives are increasingly serving as caregivers for the children of parents navigating addiction. Oftentimes, these caregiving roles are formalized by the state. If, for example, a child is with a parent during an arrest or a neighbor calls a welfare check on a child, the state will first place children with relatives rather than unrelated foster parents. Yet despite serving in the same roles as licensed foster parents, relative caregivers who choose to take custody of their children rather than ceding custody to the state are not eligible for the same per diem financial assistance as foster parents. Such practice places undue financial pressures on relatives, many of whom live on fixed incomes intended for one or two individuals.2 Additionally, child welfare involvement places parents at risk of another form of punishment: the termination of parental rights. The majority of children who enter the child welfare system are never reunified with their biological parent.
To avoid state involvement and maintain decision making power over their families, many relatives are stepping into caregiving roles informally. For example, if a relative is concerned that a parent may become involved in the criminal justice or child welfare systems and they want to preemptively protect both the parent and children, they may either pursue temporary custody independently or take the children in without legal custody. As mistrust of the state increases and faith in the state’s ability to manage the opioid crisis decreases, service providers have suggested that increasingly larger proportions of relatives are taking on caregiving roles informally.3 Yet again, these relatives must take on the new financial obligations of caregiving without additional assistance. Relatives who lack custody cannot even draw on the typical family support programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
For the past few years, I have been interviewing both relative caregivers and biological parents whose children are being raised by relatives. My research considers how families navigate parental addiction amid a culture of strict criminalization of drug use. Ultimately, I hope to advocate for policies and programs that support entire family units through drug-related hardships, promoting therapeutic over punitive responses to addiction.
My respondents have taught me how our current punitive response to addiction has left both relative caregivers and biological parents feeling unsupported and alone. Financial struggles are ubiquitous among relative caregivers and are particularly severe for those who are of retirement age and those who are low-income. My respondents have reported losing their homes, refinancing their cars, and forgoing their own medicine in order to afford groceries for their children. Some respondents have had to quit their jobs in order to care for multiple young children; other respondents have had to go back to work in order to bolster their incomes. Many respondents report facing new levels of exhaustion that come with raising children, particularly when assuming the care of multiple children at once. Older caregivers, in particular, face daily anxieties about their health and age, worrying about their children’s futures should they pass away.
Many parents who feel they have been stripped of their relationships with their children report losing their biggest motivation for entering recovery. But when parents lose custody of their children, they risk losing important familial support as well. If a family becomes involved in the child welfare system, familial relationships become subject to surveillance and control by the state. For example, custody rules may prevent caregivers from housing both the parent and child, which can diminish parents’ access to stable housing—an important factor in recovery. And for caregivers, accessing financial support often comes at the expense of parents. For example, new child support obligations can threaten to further entangle parents in the criminal justice system. Both child welfare and social support policies necessarily antagonize parents and caregivers, jeopardizing rather than strengthening family relationships.
The current pandemic has threatened the stability of millions of families. Yet kinship families are facing added challenges, in large part because the issues they must endure daily have intensified. Relative caregivers who are unable to access financial assistance are likely to face challenges in purchasing necessities for multiple weeks at once. Caregivers who lack transportation may be unable to pick up school breakfasts and lunches for their children, if they live in school districts where buses are not delivering to students’ households. The social support organizations or churches whom caregivers typically rely on for assistance may not be in operation or may be struggling to provide services. And while most parents will be receiving additional stimulus money for each child in their household, relative caregivers who do not have legal custody over their children will not receive this emergency aid.
While anxiety has increased across the U.S. population, older caregivers—such as grandparents and great-grandparents—must navigate additional mental and physical health challenges. Caregivers who have been unable to afford their own necessary medicine may be at heightened risk for severe complications of COVID-19, if their existing underlying conditions are not under control. Older caregivers—who already reported facing extreme levels of fatigue—will face added mental and physical exhaustion of caring for children 24/7, without school and extracurricular activities to provide much-needed breaks. In addition to monitoring their children, caregivers are now faced with new responsibilities in their children’s schooling; as many older caregivers have told me about their struggles to keep up with technology, the technological requirements of remote schooling have likely added stress to their already full plates. Finally, anxieties around one’s own mortality and children’s futures are likely heightened, particularly amid daily news that COVID-19 is most deadly for older individuals. Many caregivers manage their anxieties through relationships at their children’s schools, in caregiving support groups, or in their churches—coping strategies that are no longer accessible in person.
The progress that has been made by parents who are in recovery or are working towards recovery is also at jeopardy. Parents who are currently involved in the child welfare system have lost their in-person visitations with their children. Without continued interaction with their children, parents may lose motivation towards their goals, and the added time apart may derail progress that parents have made in rebuilding relationships with their children. New periods of unemployment may create added financial struggles and increased mental health challenges—factors which often lead people to self-medicate through drug use. And if parents are paying relative caregivers child support, and they are behind on their child support payments, they will not be able receive emergency government aid. Finally, the months-long—or even years-long—recession that will follow this pandemic may threaten parents’ abilities to obtain stable housing and employment—two factors which are typically required of parents who are seeking to regain custody of their children.
In the long run, our institutional response to addiction requires systemic change that empowers families and promotes the well-being of relative caregivers, parents, and children alike. But in the short run, we can help to fill the gaps and address the needs of kinship families in our own communities. Check in with the folks you know who are caring for relative children. If your community has a grocery pickup service, walk them through the process of ordering online. Drop off a meal in packaging that can be disinfected. Answer questions they may have about technology—whether for their kids’ schooling or to help them stay in touch with family and friends. Run an errand to help limit their exposure. And check in with the folks you know who are navigating mental health challenges like addiction. Be a listening ear—especially at a time when people feel helpless to the circumstances they can’t control.
While the COVID-19 disease can afflict anyone, regardless of race, class, or other social status, the pandemic has simultaneously exposed the many social inequalities that exist within our nation—from access to health care to the availability of Internet bandwidth to the depth of families’ financial safety nets. Communities—both in Central Appalachia and beyond—should consider the unique challenges and precariousness experienced by kinship families during this time.
1 These estimates were reported to me by Family Resource Coordinators during my fieldwork.
2 Roughly half of the respondents in my sample of relative caregivers were in their 60s or older, depending on Social Security retirement income. Several others were dependent on Social Security disability income.
3 This observation was relayed to me during interviews with representatives from organizations who serve relative caregivers.
Kristina Brant is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Harvard University and a Doctoral Fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her research focuses on poverty and addiction, social support networks, and the intersection of the criminal justice and child welfare systems. She is passionate about the vitality of rural communities, particularly in Central Appalachia. She lives in Somerset, Kentucky with her partner and four fur children.