It had been decades since Sarah Smalls and her husband raised their only son. So Smalls, a grandmother in Virginia, was a bit rusty when she took in her three grandchildren, a 2-year-old girl and, later, the girl’s 4- and 6-year-old brothers.
Smalls’ son was incarcerated, and the children’s mother was unable to care for them, so Smalls knew she needed to step up. She gave up her dream of retiring to the Caribbean and borrowed from her 401(k) account to raise the children with her husband, who retired to help.
“It was extremely difficult,” said Smalls, 73. “We had not planned to have grandchildren living with us. Getting up in the morning, fixing bottles, going off to work — normally I’d get into bed by 1 a.m. and would be up at 6 a.m. to do it all over. It was hard to imagine getting two more children.” The children are now 17, 18 and 21.
“I was looking for any kind of resources for grandparents raising children, and there weren’t many back then,” she said. “The quality and level of support a family can receive depends on ... a caregiver’s legal relationship with the child. So if you’re an informal caregiver who didn’t go through child protective services, there are even less resources for you.”
Smalls is one of many people across the country providing “family, friend or neighbor care” in what have been called “kinship families” or “grandfamilies,” families in which children are raised by relatives or close family friends. Some guardians adopt the children, others care for them as familial foster parents, and some refuse to go through state agencies, preferring to remain informal caregivers.
An estimated 2.6 million children are growing up in such families in the U.S., according to Generations United, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group that advocates for children, youth, and older people. A report from the organization, Equitable Supports for Basic Needs of Grandfamilies, found that Black, American Indian and Alaska Native children are more likely to live in grandfamilies than the general population. And 25 percent of children living in the care of extended family members are Black.
Although such living situations are common in the U.S., federal and state resources for grandfamilies are slim to none, the report said. Race, age or socioeconomic status largely determine services and support for child care, which can exclude certain relatives or impose long-term financial burdens.
For example, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is a federal program that provides funding for states to provide monthly cash assistance to low-income families with children. Smalls said her family received TANF assistance for years and it was a help as she and her husband struggled to raise the children after they both retired. They learned of a rule that would have required their son to repay the state thousands of dollars for the financial assistance.
Jaia Lent, the deputy executive director of Generations United, said: “Support and services for families, from housing to education to health care, really weren’t designed for grandfamilies. They were typically designed with parents in mind.
“Who of us can just drop everything and add the cost of caring for another child to our lives without having additional support?” Lent asked. “On a regular basis, grandfamilies are doing that. It’s a lot of hurdles for families to get the same type of support that even an unrelated foster parent would get.”
Kinship families are not new. With origins in African societies, Black communities have prioritized such communal care for centuries, building collectivist communities in which extended family caregiving is common.
Like the Smallses, Black families often choose informal arrangements to both keep state agencies from interfering and keep their parental rights. The sociologist Robert B. Hill famously wrote about the cultural practice in his groundbreaking 1972 book, “The Strengths of Black Families,” identifying “strong kinship bonds” as an important characteristic.
Kinship families may form for a variety of reasons: the inability of parents to financially support their children, teen pregnancy, substance abuse or simply another relative’s ability to provide a better quality of life for the child. Smalls, who volunteers as a guide for grandfamilies, said she understands her caregiving to be part of that long, rich history.
Compared to those in non-kin foster homes, children who live with relatives experience greater stability and a greater sense of safety, and they generally have better behavioral and mental health outcomes, the report said. Grandfamilies also allow children to stay connected with their siblings and preserve their cultural identities. Children in kinship families have also reported that “they always feel loved,” and there is strong evidence that children thrive in grandfamilies, the report said.
“It feels almost like there’s an ancestral kind of wisdom and a spiritual knowing that the way the world really should work is in community. There’s a communal nature that exists culturally for us,” said Leah Austin, the president and CEO of the National Black Child Development Institute.
Society “still very much sees the raising of, caring for, children as an individual family responsibility,” Austin said, adding, “I think we need to open that up by broadening the definition of what we mean when we say ‘parents,’ when we say ‘families.’”
Advocates like Generations United are urging leaders, at both the federal and the state levels, to support the development of “kinship navigator programs,” programs in cities across the country that help connect grandfamilies with resources, services and information to help with raising children.
Lent said some federal money has gone to community-based organizations that have relationships with grandfamilies, like the Children’s Home Society of New Jersey, the Children’s Home Network in Florida, OhioKAN and others. The group is also calling for a kinship caregiver tax credit and better, more equitable access to foster care maintenance payments and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
“A key recommendation is that any support, service or policy that is being created should be fully informed by the families themselves that are being impacted,” she said. “Our overarching recommendation is to have families at the center informing every plan.”
In 2018, Congress passed the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, which created a federal council tasked with making recommendations to support kinship families. The council released a report last month full of recommendations to address awareness and outreach to legal guidance and access to services. Generations United is urging federal leaders to implement the recommendations.
Smalls, the doting grandmother, is nearing her youngest grandchild’s 18th birthday, and she cannot help but reflect on the years she has spent raising the children. She said that while she acknowledges the hardships of leading a kinship family, she has found great joy in the journey, too.
“Initially, my three grandchildren were scattered in various states. It was my husband and I’s goal to get all of our grandchildren together,” she said. “We accomplished that. I think the joy for me was when I would go into their rooms at night and they were all sleeping peacefully and they were safe.”