LINCOLN — Grandparents, other relatives and close family friends are raising a growing number of Nebraska and Iowa children.
Such kinship caregivers often face emotional, physical and financial strains, according to a report released Wednesday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The report calls for states and communities to work on strengthening policies and programs to support kinship families.
“Research shows kids fare better when they remain in the safe, stable and familiar environment that relatives can provide,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the foundation.
The report found that some 14,000 Nebraska children are growing up with extended family members or family friends, an increase of 27 percent over the past decade.
In Iowa, about 18,000 children are in kinship care, a 50 percent jump in 10 years.
The increase in both states exceeded the national average of 18 percent, but the proportion of Nebraska and Iowa children living in kinship care remains below the national average.
Most of the children are there because of informal arrangements, the report said. But child welfare systems also are placing more foster children with extended family and friends.
In 2010, Nebraska placed 1,153 foster childen with relatives or family friends. Iowa had 1,478 children in such placements.
Family and friends accounted for 22 percent of all foster care placements in Nebraska and 23 percent in Iowa.
Carolyn Rooker, executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska, said kinship families play a critical role in protecting and caring for children whose parents cannot do so.
Extended families and friends step up for many reasons, among them parents' substance abuse, mental illness, death, imprisonment, domestic violence, child abuse and abandonment.
But the report showed that kinship caregivers are more likely than parents to be poor, single, older, less-educated and unemployed.
The Casey Foundation and Voices for Children called for states to help by making benefits and resources more available. The groups recommend that states provide more flexibility in licensing relatives as foster parents, which would allow them to qualify for higher payment rates.
Sarah Forrest, of Voices for Children, said 94 percent of kinship foster placements are not licensed. She said Nebraska should look at waiving some nonsafety requirements, such as requirements that children not share beds.
The groups also recommended easing requirements for welfare benefits to accommodate the special financial situations of older and disabled relatives caring for children. For example, Nebraska now allows people to have only $2,000 in assets, which can work against older people who have little income but some savings.
Another recommendation is to make it easier for kinship caregivers to make educational, health care and legal decisions for the children they are raising.
Forrest said some states have set up avenues outside the court system to provide such authority.
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