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As South LA families struggle to raise their relatives' kids, some want equal treatment

When the crack epidemic hit South Los Angeles in the '80s and '90s, addiction among low-income residents skyrocketed.

Wanda Enix found herself pulled into its vortex in 1992 when her husband phoned her at work in a panic. His niece had just given birth to her fourth child. Due to its mother's drug addiction, the infant was sick and social workers were about to remove her children. 

“My husband called me and said, 'They’re getting ready to take the kids. What should I do?'” Enix recalled recently in her family home in South Los Angeles. “I said, 'Go with your heart.’ And I came home and I had four kids.”

Nationally, 27 percent of all foster children are living with a relative. For California, the number is about 39 percent. But in Los Angeles County, about 52 percent of all foster children are living with a relative. 

'Living at or below the poverty line'

In South Los Angeles, many foster parents who take in the children of their relatives survive on very limited incomes. “We know that many of our relative foster parents are living at and below the poverty line,” said Angie Schwartz, attorney for the advocacy group Alliance for Children’s Rights.

Data from the Administration for Children and Family Services, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, show that one-third of relative caregivers nationwide live in poverty. It may well be even higher in South L.A. given the poverty rate there is more than double that of California as a whole.

For 58-year-old South Los Angeles resident Maria Garcia, taking on her daughter’s children created a heavy financial burden. She said her daughter was a victim of domestic violence and after repeated incidents, social workers removed her children from the home. Garcia agreed to take in the children, and is raising 3-year-old Soledad, 6-year-old Pablo and 11-year-old Jose.

Garcia receives a state welfare benefit for the children through CalWORKs, about $800 a month. Until earlier this year, it was her only means of support. In February, she started receiving food stamps, too. She has been unable to work since the children came to live with her. They need her to shuttle them among doctors, special needs therapists and school.

Her expenses are hefty. The county Department of Children and Family Services requires that she have a certain number of bedrooms. Her monthly rent of $1,100 is higher than if she lived alone, she said.

Often, Garcia said, she goes months without paying her gas or electric bill. She has racked up huge credit card debts just meeting the family’s basic needs.

Relatives win one battle, but others remain

It was grandmothers and aunts who, as they struggled financially to raise their relatives' children, banded together to lobby for help. They joined with the local nonprofit, the Community Coalition of South L.A., to bring their issues to decision-makers in Sacramento.

Wanda Enix, raising the four children of her husband's niece, became a local leader in the group. She took bus trips to the state capital with other South L.A. relatives and foster care and youth advocates. They focused on changing a law that had denied many relatives the same foster care payments as non-kin foster parents.

Their efforts paid off.

In June 2014, the Approved Relative Caregiver Funding Option Program, known as ARC, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown. While the law equalized payments to relative foster parents, it remains up to each county whether to opt-in. Most counties, including Los Angeles, agreed to pay relatives what other foster parents receive, but 15 have not — among them San Bernardino and Riverside.

Even in L.A. County, however, some families still have not received the foster care payments that the law change provided.

On a Monday morning recently, Maria Garcia received a visit from Susana Ochoa of the Community Coalition of South LA. Ochoa, a social worker, has been helping Garcia and other relative caregivers to figure out the benefits they are entitled to under the complicated welfare and foster care systems. 

At the basic rate of $748 per child, Garcia should have received $2,244 a month in foster care payments for her daughter's children, but to date she has not — and doesn't know why. Officials said they couldn't talk about any individual's case for privacy reasons.

Ochoa said her hope is relatives who are still waiting will be paid retroactively to January 2015, when L.A. County agreed to pay relatives what non-kin foster parents receive.

Until the change, California was one of only two states that did not offer relatives payments for raising a foster child.

Unintended incentives and consequences for families

The state's principal concern is finances, but Jill Duerr Berrick, a professor of social welfare at University of California, Berkeley, said there were other concerns, too.

“When we determine that we are going to pay relatives more than we are going to pay a birth parent to raise a child, it raises question about whether we are creating unintended incentives for the child to be shifted from the home of a birth parent into the home of a relative to be more financially secure,” she said.

So the California legislature decided relatives could apply for welfare benefits for their foster kids instead — just like any low-income parent could. Schwartz, with Alliance for Children’s Rights, said the problem is welfare pays significantly less than foster care subsidies.

Although the amended law will now help the relatives, inequities remain in the system. 

As Ochoa sits in Garcia's kitchen, the two study a table from the county Department of Children and Family Services that shows the extra foster care payments Garcia could be receiving based on the special needs of two of the children. But because she is a relative, she doesn't qualify for the additional support.

Ochoa crunched the numbers, and calculated that Garcia would be getting $2,937 a month for all three children if she was not their grandmother but rather an unrelated foster parent.

Schwartz said the system doesn’t align with state law that mandates every effort first be made to place kids with relatives. And when that happens, researchers say kids do much better.

“The studies consistently show that children placed with relatives have fewer negative emotions about being placed in foster care, they have better educational outcomes and greater school stability when placed with relatives,” she said.

Beverly Miller, a social worker with the Department of Community and Family Services, has often heard stories like Garcia’s. She is based at a department's Kinship Center, which provides support and resources to relative caregivers. Miller said finances limit how much L.A. County can help. 

“The budget is very, very tight and again that’s where we come in providing different resources in the community that might be able to subsidize what they have going on.”

Maria Garcia knows about the Kinship Center, and has attended some parenting trainings, but she said her discussions with the agency’s social workers have not yielded much help for her grandchildren. 

L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, recently asked DCFS to study the discrepancies between relative foster parents and non-kin foster parents and suggest ways to close the gap. Kuehl asked the department if it can set aside $1.25 million of its budget to finance services for relative caregivers.

Amara Suarez, a department spokeswoman, said the agency is scheduled to submit the study by the end of September. The report will include any changes that would be part of a supplemental 2015-2016 budget, she said. 

Maria Garcia is not waiting for the system to catch up. She is moving to adopt her three grandchildren. Adopting children from the foster system will allow her to receive the same payment that non-kin foster parents would receive for adopting foster children. For Garcia, that means she could stop racking up debt.

Adoption can raise other issues if the parents of the children want them back. But for Garcia, that’s yet another problem for yet another day.