PHOENIX — It is widely accepted that children who are placed with a relative instead of traditional foster care have better outcomes in education and overall wellbeing. But in Arizona, there are very few supports to help them when they agree to step in.
Camelita De La Rosa, of Phoenix, has guardianship of her son's four children ranging in age from 12 to 16. When the children were smaller neither parent was able to care for them and for a time they were in traditional foster care. She said eventually they were adopted by her sister to keep them together.
But when her sister passed away in January 2021, the family was left with two options: have the children live with a relative or go back to the foster system where they would likely be separated.
"I knew what I had to do, I had to step up and get these kids," De La Rosa said.
By February she said a judge granted her official guardianship, and she went from a single 64-year-old to the primary parent of four children. The family is considered an informal kinship placement, which is the designation given when family or relatives step in to take care of the children and the Department of Child Safety (DCS) does not have to get involved.
It's something she said she's happy to do but it's been tough.
"I'm older. I'm not young, like I used to (be). Back then I could do a lot of things. But now I get tired. You know, but I still got to do it. I still got to get up. I still got to do what I got to do," said De La Rosa, of Phoenix. "I don't want them to go back into the system."
Over the summer they moved in with a relative while looking for a place big enough and affordable enough for the five of them. Because while her expenses have gone up, her income has not.
"I'm just barely making it. Can you imagine if I wasn't working? I wouldn't be able to do it," she told ABC15.
Molly Dunn with Children's Action Alliance said there are no financial supports available to Arizona families in informal kinship placements.
"Many states use their TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), their welfare dollars to support these informal kinship families. Arizona used to do that," but Dunn said those payments were cut during the Great Recession and never restored.
An estimated 54,000 Arizona children are being raised by their grandparents in an informal kinship home, according to Annie E. Casey Foundation Kids Count Data Center. Even more are believed to be raised by other relatives, and since DCS did not place them, none qualify for any help.
An estimated 6,770 children are part of formal kinship foster cases which means DCS was directly involved with removing children and placing them with family. In those cases, families are entitled to a monthly stipend of $75 per child and can apply for a TANF payment of up to $164 per month per child.
"But the vast number of kinship foster families, don't even receive that child only TANF so they're just getting $75 a month per child," Dunn said.
But if any of the children, in either informal or formal kinship placements, were sent to live with a stranger that has a foster license, they would be entitled to an average of $640 per month to help with expenses of caring for the children, Dunn said. They would also have access to all the mental, physical, and dental health supports that are available to children in the foster system.
Advocates say the exclusion of children of families in kinship placement is unfair.
Barbara Covey, of Glendale, said the only way she could get her three grandchildren the help they needed was by becoming a licensed foster care provider.
"You're trying to navigate the system and the, the people and you're getting a lot of noes," she said.
Covey and her husband who also have two younger children of their own have had her older son's children since 2014. She said it was only after months of networking with other grandparents and non-profits she find out they would need to become foster licensed to qualify for the help that is afforded traditional foster families particularly for children who have been traumatized and neglected as her grandchildren had been.
"She didn't know how to read," Covey said of her oldest granddaughter. "She didn't know how to really write her English and math skills were zilch."
But she said the process of becoming licensed is too burdensome for families who already have children.
She said it requires months of training, inspections, and in their case, renovations.
"Once he (her grandson) turned five, he cannot be in the same room with his siblings, because he's a different sex. So, we had to build a room. So, the only room we had left in our house was our dining room. So, we had to convert it." Covey said it cost them $18,000.
Covey knows a lot of grandparents don't have that kind of time or resources.
"And this is why I speak out. Because currently, there are kinship parents out there that are struggling, really struggling day to day, each day. But they can't speak out," she said.
So Covey and her oldest granddaughter 15-year-old Emma, spend a lot of time with Arizona Grandparent Ambassadors advocating at the State legislature for more help for these families.
During the 2021 legislative session, they pushed two bills that would increase financial supports to kinship families. Senate Bill 1144 would have restored TANF benefits to informal kinship families and Senate Bill 1539 would have doubled the monthly stipend for formal kinship families from $75 to $150. Both enjoyed support by both parties, but neither became law.
Covey said legislators have not been able to give an answer to why the legislation stalled but said, "We're not being heard, and we're not being seen. But it's a huge inequity. We just need fairness."
She said they'll be back to fight again next year. In the meantime, De La Rosa and the kids are moving forward, and soon into their own apartment with enough room for everyone at a price she believes she can afford.
A stable place to call home while she works everything else out.
"Every morning I pray, and He gives me the strength. I say 'God bless me with wisdom,' not patience because I don't want the patience," she laughed. "But with the wisdom. So, I just take it one day at a time."