All in the family An alternative to foster care, 'kinship care' now accounts for half the court-supervised child placements in Baltimore.

July 05, 1998|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

With the dedication of a drill sergeant, Lillie McCoy inspects her grandchildren each morning for cleanliness and clothing choice: No baggy pants, exposed underwear or reversed shirts are allowed.

The eldest must clean the kitchen. Bedtime is 8:30 p.m. on the dot. Fighting and loud arguments are not tolerated. When they aren't sleeping in their bedrooms, they must remain within her sight.

"I've raised my share of kids. I know the games," she says firmly.

McCoy can't afford to be some indulgent grandmother who hands out lollipops and lemonade. She and her husband, Henry, are legal guardians of six granddaughters who, without them, would be in the hands of foster families.

Even the thought of foster care, of seeing her girls scattered, forced to live in the homes of strangers, brings tears to her eyes. She was once a foster child herself.

"I have sisters and brothers I'm not close with. We never knew each other," she recalls. "I couldn't let that happen again."

Across the country and particularly in drug-ravaged cities like Baltimore, grandmothers like McCoy are increasingly being relied upon to hold together broken families.

When problems arise, putting children under the care of extended family members is an old custom - an estimated 3 million youngsters fit that category, according to census figures. But in communities poisoned by crack cocaine and suffering from incidents of child abuse and neglect, and with the spread of life-threatening diseases like AIDS, these arrangements have taken on a far greater importance.

The McCoys are among the more than 3,500 families in Maryland and an estimated 150,000 nationwide with custody of relatives under a government-sponsored program known as "kinship care."

Advanced in the late 1980s as an alternative to overcrowded foster care, kinship care now accounts for half the court-supervised child placements in Baltimore.

"We figured out that when you move children further from their families, children will develop more problems," said Mattie L. Satterfield, director of kinship care services for the Child Welfare League of America.

"Now, once children get into the foster care system, the first place they go is to their relatives."

But this boom in kinship care has raised questions: Are relatives truly better caregivers? What hardships face the guardian family, particularly the elderly? Should the government be doing more to help them?

For many of these families, dealing with government is the hardest part of their situation. In Maryland, the state will pay far more to compensate a foster family (about $500-$600 per child) than it will when a child's relative acts as guardian (about $160). If the relatives adopt the children, benefits may be cut off altogether.

There's a logic to that: Should society have to reward families for doing what they are supposed to do? But in the case of the McCoys, the financial stress poses a considerable problem.

The East Baltimore family lives on disability. Henry McCoy, 58, a former asphalt worker, suffers from emphysema, the painful legacy of a lifelong smoking habit that now keeps him confined to the house and near an oxygen supply.

For taking care of their daughter Desiree's children since October 1996, they receive $596 a month plus $311 in food stamps.

"It's hard keeping up with kids at [age] 53," says Lillie McCoy, "but the worst is going to [the city department of] social services. You stand in line and then some girl behind the counter gives you some disgusted look."

McCoy hadn't expected to become a full-time mother twice. Her first stint began three and a half decades ago when she dropped out of Dunbar High School in 11th grade to have the first of seven children.

But an allegation of child abuse by her daughter's boyfriend, followed by Desiree's failure to keep him away from the children led to a court-ordered emergency placement.

Nearly two years later, Desiree is still involved in her daughters' lives, but only on a part-time basis. They hope to reunite the girls with their 31-year-old mother later this month, perhaps even permanently.

"It's been a hard situation for me to accept," McCoy said. "Desiree was never mistreated. She was never in foster care."

To help her family's budget, McCoy is trying to be approved as a foster care provider. But there is no guarantee she will meet the program's standards, or complete the necessary training. Even if she does, it will mean more, not less, government involvement in her family life.

"I will not let these kids go hungry," she says.

Even the program's advocates admit that government hasn't quite figured out how to properly support kinship care. Beginning this summer, the state and federal government will begin a 5-year study of a new form of subsidized guardianship that boosts payments to $300 per month per child for 1,500 families who are to be randomly selected.

Maryland is one of only five states along with California, Delaware, North Carolina and Illinois, involved in the trial program.

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