Grandparents who have taken on the role of primary caregiver for their grandchildren will gain protections in cases of medical emergency and increased support from governmental programs.
Gov. Tom Wolf approved Act 88 and Act 89 of 2018 on Oct. 23, which will allow a family member to become a child’s temporary guardian more easily and establish the Kinship Caregiver Navigator Program. This would provide resources for grandparents, living in “grandfamilies,” who are responsible as their grandchildrens’ primary caregivers.
Family members can now become legal guardians in 90-day increments for up to one year in cases where parents suffer from substance use disorder, or other instances when parents cannot take care of their kids. The law will go into effect in early 2019.
The kinship navigator program includes a website, toll-free hotline and a counselor to assist caregivers with the government services available to them. This system will be functioning by mid 2019.
There are more than 17,000 grandfamilies in Philadelphia, according to the Supportive Older Women’s Network, a Philadelphia-based organization that provides resources to people age 50 and older.
Kailyn Schneider, a freshman journalism major from Northeast Philadelphia, was raised by her two sets of grandparents. She said that through high school and college, her grandparents had to work around the legal system to care for her.
“My grandparents had to take me through that,” she said. “It was two rounds of a lot of work. As I was getting older, it was difficult for them to get no support from my parents.”
The Wolf administration received a nearly $500,000 grant last month for the navigator program from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families. The governor emphasized in a press release that the law could be used to provide alternative care for children whose parents are suffering from opioid use disorder.
“This grant will help us increase our support for grandparents, other family members and especially the children affected by these crises,” he said in the release.
Schneider’s mother helped raise her as an infant despite suffering from drug use. However, when her mother’s condition worsened, both her mother and grandparents agreed to transfer custody.
“They would rather that I’m with them and not anyone else, and they tell me every day that they’re very glad the universe placed me with them,” Schneider said.
Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne County, introduced the legislation that will give a family member temporary legal custody over a child in situations where their parent is medically incapacitated.
Chris Fetterman, a research analyst for Pashinski’s office, said a “triggering event” is usually what is needed for guardians to enter into the agreement. If a parent overdoses and is in the hospital, the grandparent can petition a court for temporary emergency custody, Fetterman said.
The laws are intended to eliminate barriers kinship families face to access the resources they need. Both laws recognize the legal issues that may arise from dropped custody battles, like in Schneider’s case, and prioritize giving guardian rights, regardless of legal custody.
“When you take in foster children, you get monthly payments from the foster care system,” Fetterman said. “But when a grandparent takes in a grandchild, whether they have temporary emergency custody or not, they don’t get anything.”
Temporary guardianship allows a grandparent to do small but impactful tasks like enroll their grandchild in school or take them to the doctor.
“The goal of it was to grant rights to grandparents so that if the parent cannot be making that decision if they’re in a coma or treatment, someone is still able to make legal decisions for the child,” Fetterman said.
As part of the kinship navigator program, a professional who understands the government agencies that help families in these situations will help kinship caregivers access federal, state and local services.
Rep. Katharine Watson, R-Bucks County, proposed the kinship navigator program to help these “grandfamilies” navigate governmental agencies and access the resources they need.
Jennifer Keaton, Watson’s communications manager, said the ultimate goal of the program is to connect families with additional resources.
“What we envision for the website…is being an umbrella for a number of different programs and services,” Keaton said. “What we are finding is that some of the grandparents don’t really know what types of services are out there.”
Schneider said she understands the difficulties grandparents face, because they have limited abilities as parents if they do not have legal custody.
A resource provided for Philadelphia’s kinship population, Grand Central Inc., “didn’t do much” for Schneider and her family to recognize her as the legal child of her grandparents, she said.
Schneider could not be listed as a dependent on her grandparents’ taxes. If she was listed as a dependent, her family would be eligible for tax deductions or government assistance. She said this prohibited her grandparents from accessing food stamps.
Despite the financial drawbacks, Schneider said that she would not have her parental situation any other way.
“I understand that it’s not very normal to be raised by your grandparents and it does hurt a little bit to think that you’re not like everyone else in the sense of growing up,” she said. “But it’s comforting to know that I have some type of support system behind me.”
“I’d rather have that than parents that don’t care and aren’t invested,” she added.