Most days, the massive unfairness of the world cannot crush Ollie Reeves.
Most days, the 76-year-old calls on her faith in God and family to help her raise her two grandchildren, Montrey, 14, and Destiny, 10, amid a pandemic.
Most days, the retiree plunges into her savings, accumulated as a Boeing shuttle driver, to pay for food, clothes and medical bills.
But occasionally, there are days when things get too much and Reeves can do nothing but lock herself in her bedroom and cry.
“My grandkids will say ‘Grandma, why’d you lock the door?’ But they know I need a quiet moment and they just let me be,” she said.
Reeves is one of the more than 47,000 people in Washington state who raises a relative’s child — often a grandchild — outside of the formal foster-care system. And they have reason to cry out.
For every child raised by a relative in our formal foster-care system, there are 11 raised by grandparents outside the formal system. Known as kinship caregivers, and disproportionately people of color, they serve as a familiar refuge for a child whose biological parents are no longer in the picture.
Yet, despite data showing that placing a child with a relative helps mitigate the trauma of a parental separation, kinship caregivers like Reeves are too often left to fend for themselves.
In Washington, the only statewide financial support they can access is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) grant.
And that grant provides only $363 monthly for the first child, $96 for a second one, with increased support varying for additional children. For Reeves, that equates to a grand total of $459 a month for two children.
“They can eat more than that in a month,” said Reeves.
Contrast that with a foster family raising two children. That family could expect at least $796 a month to raise a 10-year-old, and $810 a month for a 14-year-old. And special circumstances can qualify the family for extra assistance.
Make no mistake, both sums are paltry compared to the estimated cost of $284,570 ($1,317 per month) to raise a child to 18 years old. But kinship caregivers are punished for their reluctance — often based on well-founded suspicions — to join the foster-care system and open up their households to state oversight.
Historically, the child-welfare system helped destroy families of color, particularly Black and Native American families. Between the late ’80s and early ’90s, the number of children of color in the foster-care system doubled. Today, Black and Native children make up only 14.7 percent of our child population, yet account for 23.9 percent of all maltreatment cases tracked by child-protection agencies, and 25% of all kids in foster care.
You either believe those discrepancies are caused by uniquely terrible parenting habits in communities of color, or there are racist elements at play. The same elements that create disproportionate outcomes in the criminal-justice system are inherent in the child-welfare system.
“The systems that many families have dealt with have beat them down. How many people have been arrested for petty crimes in the past and it’s still held against them,” said Frank Ordway, chief of staff for the Washington state Department of Children, Youth & Families (DCYF). He references one of the many barriers keeping some kinship families from interacting with the child-welfare system, even when needing financial support.
Last March, in an effort to increase licensed kinship caregivers in the state, DCYF revised a decades-old list of crimes disqualifying someone from becoming licensed and accessing additional resources. The most heinous crimes such as molestation and murder remain.
Another barrier could vanish soon. The Legislature is considering a bill to create a “child-specific” license, meaning a kinship caregiver would only be licensed with DCYF for their own related children, and not be required to take placements of other kids as licensed foster parents would. Most important, it would allow them to access nearly the same level of resources as foster parents, without undergoing a complex licensing process.
Already passed by the state Senate, SB 5151, which is supported by the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, awaits a vote in the House.
“Our system said you can get support from the state but you have to go through this cumbersome process. And that you’d open the door for all children, not just the ones related to you,” said Washington state Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Federal Way, the bill’s primary sponsor.
She’s heard the arguments questioning, “paying grandparents to raise their grandchildren,” even though those same grandparents have saved the state millions of dollars year after year by making do on their own without the foster-care system.
It is a notion coming from a place of ignorance, according to Wilson.
“There are so many legislators who legislate from their own lived experiences. But you can’t. Part of being an anti-racist is legislating for the lived experience of others,” said Wilson.
I think of the extraordinary strain kinship caregivers are experiencing during the pandemic: how many are struggling with mental-health issues because they go without reprieve raising children all day. How many will never enjoy a true retirement because of prolonged parenthood. How 38% of them are unable to pay for their mortgage. How 32% of them arrive at food-pickup sites only to find no food. How 30% of them have no caregiving plan for their families should they die, according to a report from Generations United.
Even with the necessary passage of SB 5151, and the changes implemented by DCYF, there will still be families who stay away from the child-welfare system out of distrust.
And we still owe parity in resources provided to those families, who are doing all they can to ensure our state’s children embark on a pathway to realized potential, rather than a school-to-prison pipeline.
Reeves tells me that she prays whenever she faces financial struggles.
I have no idea if God hears her. But I hope we do.