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Kentucky Should Do More to Put Foster Kids With Family, Report Says

Years ago, Laura Cooper and her husband were working and preparing for retirement. But then the Hardin County couple were forced into something they never expected--caring for their granddaughter.

Kentucky has thousands of children in similar circumstances--kin caring for a child whose parents can't or won't. But nearly 1,300 of the more than 7,000 kids in the foster care system are without the care and comfort of a family, according to the Kids Count report released earlier this month.

Experts say kinship care is better for the child--but hardship is usual for the families who take in foster children.

"It works," said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, which released the report with the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

"It's good for the kids, it's good for families and the real punch line, when it comes to state politics, is it's good for the state budget."

The report said group placement cost up to 10 times more than in-family placement.

But the state must take steps to put more foster children into the care of family members, instead of group settings, the report said.

The Kids Count report's recommendations include expanding services to ensure children stay with families, creating more relative and foster families and supporting decision making that ensures the least restrictive placement.

Unexpected Parents

"It's something we never thought we would be doing," Cooper said of caring for her granddaughter.

They'd already been parents.

In the late 1970s, she and her husband adopted a 5-year-old girl.

"She had gone through so many separations in her life," she said of their adopted daughter. "From losing her mother, relative care givers, from being put in one foster home to another."

The girl started running away from home at 12 years old. At 19, she had a baby.

Three days after the birth, Cooper said she had a conversation with her daughter that ended with the grandmother taking over the care of the child.

"Basically, she was just turning her over to me right there," she said.

Cooper and her husband didn't shy away.

"We'll automatically do what we can to help the child," she said. "It's the love."

The adoption process was difficult, for starters, but it was their only option, Cooper said. They weren't prepared to send their only grandchild into the foster system at just 3 days old.

Group Setting Concerns

The 18 percent of the state's foster children who aren't in the care of kin are instead live in a group setting, like a foster home, according to the report.

Nationally, more than 40 percent of children living in a group setting have no mental health diagnosis, medical disability or behavioral issue that "might warrant such a restrictive setting," the report stated.

Group placement is a vital option for a small percentage of youth who cannot live safely with any family, but it should work to get children back to families as quickly as possible, the report states.

"Family is the best medicine," Brooks said.

And research backs this up. Brain development, independence, self-esteem and self-reliance are bolstered when a child grows up in or around a family environment, according to a 2012 report from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.

"We need to start at one end of the spectrum and do everything we can to keep families safely together first, before looking at other options," Brooks said.

Another factor is to remove barriers that keep kin from being licensed and financially supported as foster parents.

This, Cooper said, has been a challenge for her.

Raising a child isn't cheap, she said, and she and her husband hadn't really considered they would be bringing an infant into their home when they were lining up their retirement budget.

Cooper said she worked nights, cleaning offices, to make some extra money when her granddaughter was a small child. Her husband would work during the day.

She said that if state officials want to see more family members--grandparents, uncles, aunts--fill the void parents sometimes leave in a child's life, either through abandonment, death or other (usually unforeseen) circumstances, then lawmakers need to ensure support.

"We need financial help, just give us a clothing allowance, a food allowance, anything," she said. "Stop looking at us like were just grandparents and were going to do it, help us with it, it's not cheap."

She also said the state should take steps to remove the red tape many family members looking to adopt a relative child must navigate.

"It's very expensive for a grandchild to even try to get custody," she said.

To help others, Cooper and her husband have run a support group since 1998 for grandparents tasked with being the primary caregivers to grandchildren, and in some cases great-grandchildren.

There's about 20 grandparents in the "core" support group. But others often seek advice, she said.

"I usually get one to two phone calls a week from a grandparent that needs help, like how do I seek the right attorney, how do I get temporary custody, what's the difference guardianship and custody, why should I go for adoption, different things like that," she said.

The money she spent raising Amber, her granddaughter, was money well spent, she said.

Growing up, Amber had a knack for swimming, Cooper said. So, nearly every week, they'd drive from Elizabethtown to Louisville for swim meets. That wasn't cheap.

But Amber earned a scholarship to the University of Indianapolis, where she swam for four years.

"She was a success story," Cooper said. "But it doesn't always turn out that way."

Jacob Ryan is an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.