When Hazel Wingate’s 61-year-old brother told her he was going to have a child, she was 62. Wingate assumed that the child would be cared for by his mother, as were her brother’s five other children.
But this mother had a drug problem.
“He called me and said the lady had disappeared and he was in a hurry to get someone to care for him,” Wingate said.
The boy, Walter Jones the third, was put in the foster care system immediately after he was born in New York State. The family had 15 months to find him a caregiver before he would be put up for adoption.
“I threw my hat in the ring and brought him here,” Wingate said.
Wingate is now raising the nearly five-year-old Walter at her home in San Leandro. She says taking him in was one of the best things she’s done, but she and other kinship caregivers aren’t getting the same support as non-kin foster parents.
Since the mid-eighties, the pool of traditional foster families has been shrinking. Child welfare agencies started looking to relatives or people connected to the family as guardians as an alternative to foster parents. Today, more than a third of foster kids in California are in kinship care.
Donna Moore, Kinship Program Director at Family Support Services of the Bay Area says keeping children within their family and community helps them deal with the trauma of being separated from their parents or siblings. “So they can feel a sense of belonging,” Moore said.
The Kinship Program connects relative caregivers with resources available to them in the area. Moore also runs a support group for kinship caregivers. She says 95 percent of the people she works with are informal caregivers – those who took custody of a child before it ended up a ward of the juvenile court.
There is a long history of kinship care in many cultures, especially among Native Americans and African Americans. Hazel Wingate’s own mother died when she was 15, leaving her as the oldest sibling still living at home with four younger brothers and sisters.
“I cooked and cleaned and had a part-time job but they didn’t allow me to be the mother figure,” Wingate said.
Her father died when she was 18 and an uncle took in three of her brothers and sisters. Of her 25 nieces and nephews, Walter was the first to end up in the formal child welfare system. But since he was in the New York system, when she brought him to California, he didn’t qualify for the state assistance offered to kinship caregivers here.
California is actually one of the better states in which to be a kinship caregiver. State policy favors placement with relatives, and kinship caregivers don’t have to be licensed foster parents to receive monthly expenses through the Kin-GAP program. But in order to qualify for the assistance, the child has to be a ward of the juvenile court.
A majority of kinship caregivers don’t qualify for the benefits of a traditional foster parent (currently about $425 to $597 per month, depending on the age of the child). But many do receive a CalWORKs grant instead (currently a maximum of $387 per month).
When Wingate first took in Walter, she was working as a buyer for a construction company. But she was laid off the month Walter turned two.
“It became financially hard,” Wingate said.
She was able to get a CalWORKs grant for $351 a month, but when she applied for food stamps, the caseworkers told her that the cash grant she was already getting should cover his food.
“He fell through the cracks,” Wingate said.
After many months of advocating for Walter and doing her own research, she was able to get approved for an additional $367 in food stamps each month.
She still wishes Walter were qualified for more formal support from the state.
“Let’s face it, we save them money,” Wingate said.
Walter is a very intelligent kid, Wingate said, but he also has some serious behavior issues that are difficult for her to deal with. Part of it is that he doesn’t take her discipline seriously.
“I did recognize as a baby he had a sense of humor,” said Wingate. “I didn’t know that it was going to bite me this way.”
She suspects he may have been exposed to drugs in utero. If he were in the formal system, she would qualify for help identifying the root of his issues and strategies for helping him. But Wingate, exhausted by navigating the system, stopped trying.
“I decided I should just take the food stamps,” Wingate said.
Wingate has gotten a lot of the other support she needs from Family Support Services of the Bay Area (FSSBA). She attends Donna Moore’s support group regularly.
Kinship caregivers are often less prepared than traditional foster parents. They also tend to be older with less financial resources and therefore need more support.
Moore says the caregivers struggle with shame or guilt about the fact that their relative can’t care for their child. Eighty percent of the support group attendees are grandparents or great-grandparents. “The other 20 percent are aunts, uncles, cousins, adult siblings or the neighbor next door,” said Moore.
“There’s just so many different scenarios, but it all bring us to the same point,” Wingate said. “We all need help.”
Wingate gets 24 hours a month of respite childcare from FSSBA. A trained caregiver will take care of Walter while Wingate goes to a meeting, doctor’s appointment or just rests at home. They usually take Walter for a six-hour block of time and do some educational or cultural activity.
“You’d be surprised how many use it just to go to church without the little baby running up and down the isles,” said Moore.
FSSBA also helped Wingate get into therapy. Her therapist counseled her to have patience, and to realize Walter is not ‘your generation of child.’
“That statement has made me calmer,” Wingate said.
She wishes she could get him into some kind of mentoring program so he could also have a positive male role model in his life, but most programs begin with six-year-olds.
“You are supposed to tell them age appropriate things, but these kids are asking questions that are beyond their years,” Wingate said. “You can’t get a role model too early.”
Walter calls Wingate “Mom.” She is planning to tell him she is not his biological mother before he goes to kindergarten next year.
“Because kids are so mean, and I’m so old, somebody’s gonna say something,” said Wingate.
Wingate is Walter’s legal guardian, but she is not adopting him. Most kinship caregivers end up providing the most permanent option for a child. But Moore says the majority of kinship caregivers choose to be legal guardians instead of adopting.
“It feels like they would put out the lit candle of hope in the biological parent,” Moore said.
Some choose to adopt so their child can receive their retirement or other benefits. Moore says the most important thing for a child in kinship care is to feel they have a secure plan for where they will live.
“A child may feel I love my mother, I love my father, but I don’t want them to just walk through this door and grab me,” Moore said.
Wingate says she needed Walter as much as he needed her. When she took him in, she had three grandkids she never saw.
“I was working two jobs just to fill that void,” Wingate said.
She plans to care for Walter as long as she can. Both her daughter and Walter’s biological brother have offered to take custody of him. She would trust either of them with his care, but she wants him to have stability.
“I don’t want to give him up – I love that boy,” said Wingate. “I fooled around and fell in love.”