Senate bill to expand benefits to help non-blood related kinship families

By MICHAELA TOWFIGHI

Monitor staff

Published: 02-24-2023 9:49 AM

Samantha Palmer was busy raising three kids of her own, while working full time, when she received an unexpected call last February. An estranged family member who was not a blood relative had her fourth child and it would be removed from her care.

No other family members could take in the child and protective workers were looking for the closest thing to kin to care for the baby girl.

Palmer’s youngest was six, her oldest thirteen. The Newbury mom thought she had surpassed the need for diapers, formula and fulltime childcare.

Since Palmer and her husband decided to take in the child, they first needed to become licensed foster parents. Given the distant relation to the baby, they are viewed in the eyes of the state as “fictive kin” caregivers – meaning that they have a close relationship with the child, but it is not by blood, marriage or adoption.

After months of classes to be licensed as a foster parent, home inspections and paperwork, the newborn joined their family. It was back to the days of cribs, baby bottles and diapers.

This has become a common story around the state, especially since the opioid epidemic left many parents unfit to care for their child. But when there is no blood relation, these families do so without much support from the state – fictive kin families in New Hampshire aren’t eligible for benefits like Temporary Assistance to Needy Families funds, meaning they often care for these children, unexpectedly, out of pocket.

“Raising a baby by any means is financially a strain but, she’s family. It’s our niece’s sister. You know, we have to,” said Palmer.

State lawmakers, however, are working to change this. On Wednesday, state senators passed bill SB172, which would deem court appointed guardians like the Palmers eligible for financial benefits to provide food, clothing and other care.

Taking in a new child

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Since the girl joined the family in June, Palmer has taken 100 hours of paid time off to car for the infant, she said. Her husband didn’t even know where to start when trying to calculate his hours of paid leave.

As is the case for many young families in New Hampshire, finding child care was the first challenge. Both Palmer and her husband took time off throughout the summer to watch after the baby until she was accepted into a daycare program.

But caring for an infant in the foster care system, also means additional home inspections and appointments – significant chunks of time where the parents must be home and available.

Twice a month therapists and developmental specialists come to their home for an early intervention appointment. Once a month the Division for Children, Youth and Families has to complete a home inspection.

The couple has now exhausted their paid leave, taking unpaid time off for each new appointment, despite both having to work to support their family of five, which now, just became six.

Although the Palmers are eligible for a state foster care stipend, which is roughly $500 monthly for an infant, this covers a fraction of the cost of having a baby, including suddenly needing to buy clothes, formula, diapers, car seats and other items.

“When you plan to have a baby you expect these things and you prepare and you have months and months and months and to financially and emotionally get ready,” said Palmer. “But when a baby is just waiting for you to get her, you’re you’re hurrying up through all the steps that you can go pick up this baby.”

The final step for the Palmers is to officially adopt the baby, which has also been a lengthy process. In October, the mother’s parental rights were terminated, with the Palmers hoping to sign off on adoption papers soon.

“We’re still just in a waiting game, waiting for papers to exchange hands essentially,” she said.

If the state definition of specified relative had included “court appointed guardian,” Palmer and her family could have received financial support at the court’s discretion. If state law were changed, families like their would be eligible for assistance until adoption became official.

Fictive kin families

For relatives who care for children, both formally and informally across New Hampshire, increased financial support for caregivers would only help children receive the best care when their parents are not in the picture, said Joelyn Drennan, who is the senior programs director for New Hampshire Children’s Trust.

“It’ll have a huge impact for kinship families in the state,” she said. “What this will do is it will expand the pool of eligible foster parents, so rather than a child going to strangers, they can stay with their preferred family.”

The Department of Health and Human Services supports this assumption, that more families, and children in foster care will have access to benefits as a result of the legislation. In the bill’s methodology, the department estimates that 3,500 children living with unrelated adults would become eligible for new benefits.

However, the Division for Children, Youth, and Families, estimated that just under 9% of families, or about 300 children, will qualify for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. At an average yearly grant of $7,116, the annual cost for 297 children would be $2,113,452, which comes from federal funds.

Currently, in order to receive these benefits an individual must be related to the child.

This is where it often gets complicated for families like Palmers, who are caring for a child without blood relation. 

“We as fictive kin get left out of the support and services. That by no means stopped us from pursuing however it is, is a strain on the finances because raising a baby is very expensive,” said Palmer.

That didn’t factor into Palmer’s decision to take in the baby. But in the eyes of the state, it plays a large role in licensing and benefits.

“Although there is no biological blood there is just as much of an emotional bond because she is family to us,” she said. “It feels like a loophole that we slip into because DHHS is like, ‘Whoa, she’s not quite family.’ It’s just a mess. It’s hard.”

With this bill expanding the definition of specified relative to include court-appointed guardians, it would now fold in families like the Palmers

The Senate passed the bipartisan bill on Wednesday. It now will go to the House of Representatives for consideration.

“I would do it all again, and I love her and you know, I wouldn’t change it for the world,” said Palmer. “But it is like when you lay it out on paper, it’s like that. It’s a lot of time, a lot of money.”

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