Congress has a chance to do right by grand­par­ents

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - MICHELLE SIN­GLE­TARY Write Sin­gle­tary at The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1301 K St. NW, Wash­ing­ton, D.C. 20071 or sin­gle­tarym@wash­post.com. To read more, go to http://wapo.st/michellesin­gle­tary.

Par­don the in­ter­rup­tion.

But may I have your at­ten­tion for a mo­ment about some se­ri­ous leg­isla­tive busi­ness that af­fects fam­ily fi­nances? It hasn’t got­ten much at­ten­tion dur­ing the chaos in­volv­ing the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the White House and the now-fired FBI direc­tor.

Across the coun­try, there are house­holds headed by grand­par­ents or other rel­a­tives tak­ing care of 7.8 mil­lion chil­dren whose par­ents may be ab­sent for any num­ber of rea­sons. These care­givers need our help be­cause, on a real eco­nomic level, they save all of us hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars.

The ma­jor­ity of these care­givers are women. And as we pause to cel­e­brate Mother’s Day, we should keep in mind the strug­gles that many of them face.

Be­fore Congress now is the

Fam­ily First Pre­ven­tion Ser­vices Act, a bi­par­ti­san bill in­tro­duced by Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and co-spon­sored by Rep. Sander M. Levin (D-Mich.) and nearly a dozen other mem­bers of Congress. If en­acted — and it should be — the leg­is­la­tion would al­low states to use fed­eral fos­ter-care funds to pay for up to 12 months of fam­ily ser­vices, in­clud­ing men­tal-health care, fam­ily ther­apy and par­ent­ingskills train­ing. This broad range of sup­port could make the dif­fer­ence be­tween chil­dren be­ing placed in fos­ter care and get­ting to stay with their grand­par­ents or other fam­ily mem­bers.

Sens. Su­san Collins (R-Maine) and Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) have in­tro­duced the Sup­port­ing Grand­par­ents Rais­ing Grand­chil­dren Act, which would cre­ate a fed­eral task force to co­or­di­nate a one-stop shop of re­sources needed by se­niors. Fig­ur­ing out where to go for help is of­ten an is­sue for grand­par­ents who are sud­denly thrust into car­ing for their grand­chil­dren.

“While grand­par­ents have long stepped in to care for chil­dren, the cur­rent opi­oid cri­sis is strain­ing the child wel­fare sys­tem and in­creas­ingly call­ing on rel­a­tives to raise chil­dren whose par­ents can­not,” said Donna Butts, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of Gen­er­a­tions United. “They do this with lit­tle or no warn­ing or sup­port. Grand­par­ents and other rel­a­tives who raise chil­dren save our coun­try more than $4.5 bil­lion a year and help the chil­dren thrive.”

Last week, I had the pleasure of serv­ing as the em­cee for a rally to sup­port grand­par­ents and rel­a­tives who pro­vide a home for chil­dren who need care.

“For ev­ery child in fos­ter care, nearly 20 chil­dren are be­ing raised by rel­a­tives out­side the child wel­fare sys­tem and are re­ceiv­ing lit­tle to no sup­port,” Butts said.

Mother’s Day is a tough time for me. Ev­ery year, it re­minds me that my own mother wasn’t there. I went to live with my grand­mother when I was 4. It has taken me most of my adult life to rec­on­cile be­ing aban­doned. But amid that pain was the safety of my grand­mother, Big Mama.

Dur­ing the “GrandRally,” a choir from the Pitts­burgh-based group A Se­cond Chance, which in­cludes grand­par­ents rais­ing grand­chil­dren, sang “Grandma’s Hands,” a soul­ful song made iconic by Bill Withers. The first part of the song goes: Grandma’s hands Clapped in church on Sun­day morn­ing. Grandma’s hands Played a tam­bourine so well. Grandma’s hands Used to is­sue out a warn­ing. She’d say, “Billy don’t you run so fast. Might fall on a piece of glass. Might be snakes there in that grass.”

My grand­mother’s hands saved me.

Big Mama wouldn’t let me and my sib­lings — there were five of us — be placed in fos­ter care, a sys­tem that could have en­tailed mul­ti­ple moves or a group home.

We surely would have been split up. My grand­mother didn’t ask for much from the state, and what she did ask for she needed.

Ev­ery Mother’s Day, I think of Big Mama and I’m grate­ful for the price­less care she gave me. She man­aged with so lit­tle, like so many oth­ers who choose to do what she did.

We can’t stay so dis­tracted with the high-pro­file po­lit­i­cal fights and con­tro­ver­sies that we don’t push Congress to fo­cus on the leg­is­la­tion that would as­sist care­givers like my grand­mother.

The ad­vo­cacy groups that spon­sored the GrandRally — in­clud­ing Casey Fam­ily Pro­grams, the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund, AARP, FosterClub, GrandFam­i­lies of Amer­ica, the Na­tional Kin­ship Al­liance for Chil­dren and Gen­er­a­tions United — and oth­ers like them need our sup­port. They need your ad­vo­cacy.

“While Wash­ing­ton is a mess, putting fam­i­lies first is an is­sue that can unite across the aisle,” Butts said. “The chal­lenge is el­e­vat­ing and mak­ing grandfam­i­lies a pri­or­ity.”

Last week, I met so many grand­moth­ers who re­minded me of Big Mama, who passed away in 1995. They hugged me for her.

There are a lot of care­givers who can’t get what they need to care for the chil­dren un­der their pro­tec­tion. Long past Mother’s Day, let’s keep the fo­cus on them. They need and de­serve our help­ing hand.

Michelle Sin­gle­tary THE COLOR OF MONEY

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