CHICAGO (AP) — When Debra Aldridge became her grandson's primary caregiver, she was making $7.50 per hour as a cook. The alternative for the newborn, she was told, was to put him up for adoption.
"I took one look at the little fella, and that was it," said Aldridge, now 62. "I couldn't let go."
For more than 11 years, Aldridge, who is divorced and lives in Chicago, has struggled to feed, house and clothe her "baby," Mario. As she ages, she is sinking deeper into poverty.
Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren, and about one-fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according to census figures.
Their ranks are increasing. The number of grandparents raising grandchildren is up 7 percent from 2009. Experts say the trend is likely to continue as the nation responds to the opiate epidemic. Military deployment and a growth in the number of women incarcerated are other factors forcing grandparents to step into parental roles.
Already, child welfare agencies are reporting an increase in the number of children, especially infants, taken from parents battling drug addictions and mental health issues. After years of declines, children in foster care rose by nearly 1 percent in 2013 and by 3.5 percent in 2014 to more than 415,000.
The increase comes as states are placing more foster children with relatives in response to research showing that children fare better with family rather than in foster care.
There is an economic incentive, too. Generations United, a nonprofit that advocates for "kinship families," says taxpayers would see significant savings by keeping children out of foster care and placing them with relatives.
But at the same time, the group says there is no comprehensive framework to keep these kinship families stable. Crucial programs, such as legal services and support groups, "exist only in small pockets of the country," it said.
Those support services are something many grandparents raising grandchildren need. Many are living on fixed incomes and managing chronic illnesses. About a quarter of grandparents raising grandchildren have a disability.
"People who step forward, step forward because there is a crisis in their family and apparently don't take into account their own limitations," said Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto, who has researched grandparent caregiving in the United States.
Maria Nanos, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Work in Chicago, said that when the state is involved, grandparents receive free legal help from the center, but informal caregivers navigate guardianship on their own. The center usually receives funds from the state's Department of Aging to help those grandparents, but Illinois has operated without a budget since July, so the center has not received the money this fiscal year.
"We have to turn people down," Nanos said.
Some states offer financial aid for informal kinship families.
In Georgia, grandparents older than 55 can get a $100 monthly subsidy per grandchild. They also have access to grants and could qualify for subsidies similar to those of foster parents (between $14.60 and $18.80 per day). But access to the assistance, which is often housed in different agencies, can be tricky, if not impossible.
To help relatives navigate the complex web of services, some states have created kinship navigators.
Lynn Urvina, is one of about a dozen kinship navigators in Washington state. She said grandparents call her seeking information about support groups, obtaining guardianship and financial help to pay bills. Every year, her case files grow.
"In our area, methamphetamines have had a huge impact," said Urvina, who is raising, along with her husband, a 12-year-old granddaughter.
Navigators in Washington serve 30 of 39 counties, with multiple counties overseen by one person. Some counties include rural communities where grandparents have little access to services, Urvina said.
"If all grandparents walked away and say, 'we can't do it,' there would be no homes for these kids," Urvina said.
To boost assistance to kinship families, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are working on a bipartisan bill that would reimburse states for a portion of money spent on such services as substance abuse prevention and kinship navigators.
As her grandson enters his teens, Aldridge, the Chicago grandmother, said she knows she'll need more resources to clothe, feed and keep him out of trouble.
To help make ends meet, she stands in food lines, taking two buses to reach the food depository. But she won't give up on Mario.
"He needs me," Aldridge said.
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