Sonya Begay, Richmond, KY

“I’ve never had any time to just sit and do something for myself,” said Sonya Begay, 57, after excitedly sharing news about her upcoming birthday trip to Maine.  Begay was referring to the past ten years of her life, which have been dedicated to caring for her 3 grandchildren.

Losing custody due to addiction, Ruben Eppele, Begay’s oldest son, was granted shared custody with his mother. In 2010, the children were living with Begay in Washington, DC when they learned Ruben had been murdered in Richmond, Kentucky.  Like many grandparents in the state of Kentucky, Begay was forced to put her life completely on hold and take full responsibility of three grieving children.

This Sunday, families across the nation will take time to show appreciation for our grandparents and all they do for us.  September 7th is National Grandparents Day and we have over 60,000 Kentucky grandchildren in the care of grandparents who deserve extra-special thanks.

In Kentucky, 6% of children are in the care of their grandparents, one of the highest rates in the nation. Grandchildren in Kentucky are placed in the care of grandparents most often due to parent substance abuse, incarceration, and/or financial problems. Though grandparent caregivers are more likely to be older, less educated, and poor, the placement of children in the care of relatives is preferred.  Research shows children fare better in kinship care than in state foster care, which also costs more.  Typically, the family transition is smoother, especially for children who have experienced trauma like abuse, death of a parent, or neglect.   Still, more guidance is offered to families in foster care, leaving grandparents, like Begay, completely lost.

When obtaining custody of the children, Begay shared having no legal support.  “Everybody’s got an attorney accept you,” Begay said.  After pressing on with court systems for 9 months while the children were in foster care, Begay was finally granted full custody. Many grandparents are unacquainted with custody options, caregiver rights, or how to access legal support to better understand these options.  Only recently, did the Kentucky General Assembly pass Senate Bill 176, which allows relative caregivers without legal custody or guardianship to complete an affidavit in order to seek medical care and enroll a child in school.

Pressing through legal matters, Begay then struggled seeking financial support. Because most grandparents are near retirement age and become caregivers unexpectedly, financial burdens begin instantly.  Grandparents have options for assistance such as the Kentucky Kinship Care Program or the Kentucky Caregiver Family Program, but often, the support is not sufficient. Grandparents also have difficulty obtaining assistance because application processes are unclear and income guidelines are strict.

Begay’s grandchildren receive social security that puts them just over the parameter for many public assistance programs.  Even with social security, Begay shares “We’re just barely making it at this time.”

Not only do grandparents struggle financially, they also share challenges in offering emotional support to trauma-exposed children.  In a University of Kentucky study on trauma-exposed children raised by grandparents, research showed 73% of children experienced at least one type of trauma, the highest rated types of trauma being emotional/psychological, impaired caregivers, and neglect. Concerned about the state of her own grandchildren, Begay arranged therapy appointments to help through their grieving process.  “They would’ve sunk into a bigger whole than they already were,” she said.  Not all caregivers are aware of symptoms related to depression, anxiety, or PTSD, nor are they given information on how to handle these obstacles, which places children in jeopardy of succeeding.

“It wears down on you health wise,” Begay said.  “It’s a very lonely thing.”

Begay and other Kentucky grandparents in kinship care settings stress the need for consistent support throughout the relative caregiver process. With the right support, Kentucky’s kinship families can succeed.


By: Emely Ortiz-Vega