Kentucky leads the nation in the number of children in the state who lived with relatives other than their parents between 2016 and 2018. According to recent data from the Census Bureau, 9 percent of Kentucky’s kids lived with relatives other than their parents during that time period, which is double the national rate.
This rate is an increase from previous years; between 2009 and 2011, six percent of Kentucky children lived with relatives. Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said there are many reasons why children end up without parents. Sometimes, he said, it’s because of substance abuse or mental health issues or incarceration.
"We have the second highest percentage of children with a parent locked up and we have the highest kinship population — those are hand in glove," Brooks said. "We know that the opioid epidemic affects all 50 states, we also know there are certain states where that impact is more significant and Kentucky is one of those."
This high rate also stresses service providers like Jewish Family and Career Services in Louisville. Therapist Jo Ann Kalb leads support groups and works with grandparents who are raising grandchildren. Many of these children, she said, deal with what’s happened through behavioral health problems.
"A high percentage of these children have what’s called attachment issues. When your primary attachment figures, your parents or your mom or dad, when there’s disruptions in that — particularly the younger the age — it makes it difficult for them to trust that the world is safe," Kalb said. "I hear story after story about kids that will hoard food in their rooms because they’ve had the experience of not being fed or not knowing when they’re going to eat."
In Kentucky, the Kinship Care program is supposed to provide relatives with money to help them take care of nieces, nephews, grandchildren and other related children — about $300 a month. But the program stopped taking new caregivers in 2013 due to a budget shortfall. Kalb said that most of the grandparents in her program don’t receive that financial help, which she said can help with things like clothing, food and other necessities for raising children.
Instead, many grandparents receive Kentucky Transitional Assistance Program (K-TAP) money, which is meant for caregivers with low-incomes. But that financial support is much less than what others can get through the Kinship Care program.
"They've had to do major job changes because now they're taking care of anywhere from one to seven grandchildren, or having to go back to work, they were retired and having to go back because there's no financial support," Kalb said. "They’re trying to manage just the financial realities of parenting children of various ages with various needs — kids are always needing new shoes and clothes — to the emotional issues to navigating school systems. It's a lot. They, to me, are truly heroic."
Brooks with Kentucky Youth Advocates called for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to release money allocated by the legislature last year to families that would qualify for Kinship Care support.
"Those dollars have yet to be spent. So we have Kinship families who heard the news that Kinship was in that state budget in 2019, and they really were counting on July and then they were counting on August and then they were counting on September and now we’re in October," Brooks said. "So we really do want the administration to take actionable steps to get those resources to families."
The legislature allocated $5.1 million for the Kinship Care program for the next two years. But in a hearing in August, Cabinet for Health and Family Service officials said that money would instead go toward paying relatives for providing temporary foster care, which the state is required to do after a federal court ruling.