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Katie, 16, Berea, KY

At the 12th annual Children’s Advocacy Day rally on January 14th, Katie Okumu, a junior at Berea Community High School and a GEAR UP student, shared her story with over 900 advocates in the Capitol Rotunda. Read her story or watch her speech on YouTube.

We are all here today because there are issues in our communities that affect us as young people. I want to start off by telling you why today matters so much to me as a youth in Kentucky.

I was born in Berea, KY in 1998, a town rich in history and tradition. My upbringing was, however, far from traditional. My father left my family before I was even born. My mother passed away before my second birthday. My brother and I were small, and alone in a very big world. We could have easily ended up in the care of strangers, or perhaps in the care of no one at all. It was the kindness of two old ladies – my grandmother and my great grandmother – that saved us. These two world-worn women had the courage to look down at our terrified young faces, grasp firmly to our tiny hands and embrace us as their own. It had been nearly a lifetime since they had children of their own, and all at once they were doing it for a second time.

I remember the pain on my grandmother’s face the first time I asked her if she was my real mother. Her response at first was, “A long time ago, I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. When she grew up, she had you.” But I was persistent. I repeated the question. “Are you my mother?” I remember her pulling me into her arms, her work-worn hands pulling the hair out of my face. “Yes. I will always be your mother.” Those words meant so much to me as a child, and still do. I felt secure. I felt safe.

My world was rocked to its core when my grandmother passed out of my life. I was in the eighth grade. My great-grandmother, at 92-years-old, chose my brother and I once again. She chose to once again become a care-taker, while many of her friends were now being taken care of.

My great-grandmother, Ruby Ferrell, turns 95 on April 10th, 2016. While our relationship has shifted some in her growing need for assistance, she still continues to be a provider for me. Whenever times get hard, and the grief of loss sets in – she draws me to her lap and cradles me still. When our bills go up, we sit together in the kitchen and discuss which things we can live without. I do my laundry, but she still insists on folding it. Sometimes I wonder what life will be like when she’s gone. I worry I won’t be able to handle losing another person; a person who is so strong.

There are 53,000 other youths in Kentucky who are dealing with the same conflicting emotions as a result of being raised by family members other than their biological parents. Sometimes referred to as the ‘hidden homeless’, over half of the students in the GEAR UP service area of eastern and southern Kentucky are living with extended family or even friends. Kentucky ranks as one of the highest in the nation for this crisis. It’s a difficult road…one many, like my family, walk willingly with love; the support we have had from organizations like Grandparents as Parents, my church, my school, and my community have filled me with hope for the future.

There are, unfortunately, a great many young people like me who have not been so lucky. Many children in Kentucky don’t have supportive families to hold them up until they are old enough to stand on their own. Even more painful to me personally, is the fact that the majority of those living with their grandparents, or aunts and uncles, are living in poverty. Economic and emotional support is vital to my family, and families like mine, when stability and security are scarce or non-existent.

Through my work with a Berea College GEAR UP group called PALS, or Promising Appalachian Leaders in Service, I have had the opportunity to share my story alongside forty other “future-­building youth” from across Kentucky. PALS has given me a voice, among the 53,000 who are often times voiceless. Being a part of this program has also made me realize that I, along with everyone in this room, ­ am responsible for making the world one where I, and the future dreamers, doers, and creators, want to live. Every young person in this room has the ability to speak up about things that matter to them, especially things that impact their communities.

I propose we start by acknowledging our communities. After all, Wendell Berry once wrote, “I am what I stand on.” We start by recognizing that we are Kentuckians… We start by being proud of our stories, and what they say about who we want to become. Only then can we pinpoint what in our lives has stirred us into coming back to our communities and making a change.

That is the most important thing we can do as youth; to impact what has impacted us, regardless of what family is to us. That is what Children’s Advocacy Day at the Capitol is all about. It’s to stand up for kids like me who need a champion, a voice, and support to succeed. So today, think about the children across Kentucky who need YOU to stand up for them. Your voice matters. It matters to youth like me.

We are the voices of the future. We are the leaders of tomorrow and today. We are Kentucky.

Grandparents from Jefferson County, KY

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Grandparents from Jefferson County recently reached out to share the recent struggle they dealt with as one of their grandchildren transitions from high school to college and figures out the process of obtaining financial aid.

 

Our daughter is bi polar and self-medicates, so she is a drug addict and in and out of jail or prison.  We received the first two (grandchildren) in the late 90’s.  The next two (grandchildren) in the early years of 2000’s.  The state was taking them and we asked for them.  The oldest (grandchild) was 3 when she came and faced issues with abandonment.  The other three (grandchildren) we received so young they have no parental issues.”

“We have been raising four grandchildren their whole school lives.  Now one is graduating high school and enrolled at the University Of Louisville. Financial aid has been a hassle because the federal government does not recognize Kinship care. I have heard that foster children get a free ride to college; now I’m wondering if I did the kids a disservice by keeping them out of the foster system.”  

The grandparents who shared this story chose to keep their identities private.

“In August 2014, I accepted temporary custody of my 16-month-old grandson.  A month later, I accepted temporary custody of my newborn granddaughter.  My life has been a whirlwind ever since.  The children were removed from their mother’s care due to neglect and drug use.

Kin's grandson Kayden

Kim’s grandson Kayden

My son is unable to care for them due to emotional and other issues.  While I am a young grandmother (43), I often feel ill-equipped to manage the needs of an infant and active toddler.  I am employed full-time and married – our family is firmly middle class, but we do not have the financial resources to pay for quality child care, which is by far the largest expense.  Fortunately, the state (DCBS) has provided benefits that have paid for 100% of their child care up to this point, but it has been a struggle to obtain those benefits.  We have been told at different times that the benefits will be reduced or eliminated.  It has been impossible to get straight answers from case workers or engage in proactive planning.   Recently, we were preparing to send the children to foster care because the benefits had been eliminated.

I don’t know whether it was my phone calls to our state senator’s office or my persistence in dealing with the case workers, but I managed to get those benefits reinstated and we are now able to keep the children.

Kim's granddaughter Kayleigh

Kim’s granddaughter Kayleigh

 

My success felt like a double-edged sword.  While I was relieved to be able to keep these precious babies, I am still struggling to find a healthy life balance for us all.  Through online research, I have learned about the kinship care benefit, which is currently de-funded.  Reinstatement of the kinship benefit just makes financial sense for the state of KY, but it also makes emotional sense for families.  I plan to lend my voice to those of other advocates, to help influence the decision-making process of our lawmakers.”

 

-Kim Guffy
Logan County, KY

Share your story 

We want you to know that you are not alone!  This is your opportunity to share your story, whether good or bad.  How did your experience impact you?  What challenges did you face?  What kind of support did you have or lack?  Are there changes you’d like to see in the system?

Please note, your stories may be shared in future online posts, public articles, or presentations.

Click HERE to share.

 

Wareen Mulgraw, Middletown, KY

10629822_298550730328728_7438949703456655211_n (1)About a year ago, Wareen Mulgraw of Middletown, Kentucky received reports that her grandson had been neglected by her daughter, who struggled with addiction and mental illness.  The courts gave the mother a year to regain stability and Wareen temporary custody of her grandson.  Now that year is up, but Wareen’s daughter continues to struggle.  At the end of the month, the family will attend a hearing that will give Wareen full custody of her 3 ½ year-old grandson.

As a single grandmother, Wareen struggles financially to provide for the child, often dipping into retirement funds to pay for child care.  At first, Wareen collected assistance through the Kentucky Temporary Assistance Program (KTAP), but the $189 per month check would not cover their expenses.  She chose to regain employment as a full-time hairdresser, forfeiting KTAP assistance.  She hoped her income and child support checks would alleviate financial burdens, but then child support checks came sporadically and Wareen was forced to take legal action against her grandson’s father.  With $800 a month to pay in child care every day is another struggle.

Recently, another obstacle surfaced when Wareen’s grandson’s medical card expired.  She is now concerned that she may have to provide health insurance for her grandson because she is employed.  Wareen spent the last few weeks seeking guidance on health care options and was even placed on hold for an hour at one point.  She applied for Medicaid and is awaiting approval, but in the meantime she prays her grandson will maintain his health.  Fortunately, Wareen’s grandson does fare well in her care.  He remains in the same child care center he began at 6 weeks of age and is healthy and happy, according to Wareen.

At such a young age, Wareen’s grandson is unaware of his circumstances, but Wareen knows he will begin questioning things soon and that she will need support.  She expresses the need for local support groups like many grandparents in Kentucky.  For example, she hopes to have a support system for her grandson as he reaches developmental milestones like the teenage years.  Studies show trauma exposed children often have behavioral issues and fall into lifestyles of crime and drug addiction.1  “We should be helping other children in these situations understand they’re not different from anybody,” she says.

Without any support groups or family nearby, Wareen relies on friendships and work to help her balance the daily stress. In a University of Kentucky study on grandparents raising grandchildren exposed to trauma, it was reported that grandparents have higher levels of stress, lower mental health scores, and poorer physical health conditions.2 Most grandparents like Wareen express concern about their own health. They especially fear not having arrangements set for their grandchildren should anything serious, like a fatal illness, happen.  Wareen suggests having some type of legal aid at support group meetings to help understand how to prepare for those possible occurrences.

Wareen has had a grasp on her situation the past year, but knows more challenges are to come.  She hopes the right support will allow her to enjoy her senior years while caring for her grandson.  In the meantime, she keeps composure and tries to stay strong. “We don’t have choices in life,” says Wareen.  “It’s all in the attitude.”

 

By Emely Ortiz-Vega

 

Share your story
We want you to know that you are not alone!  This is your opportunity to share your story, whether good or bad.  How did your experience impact you?  What challenges did you face?  What kind of support did you have or lack?  Are there changes you’d like to see in the system?

Please note, your stories may be shared in future online posts, public articles, or presentations.

Click HERE to share.

 

 

1.Daining, C., & DePanfilis, D. (2007). Resilience of youth in transition from out-of-home care to adulthood. Children and Youth Services Review, 29(9), 1158-1178.

2. Sprang, G., Choi, M., Eslinger, J., Whitt-Woosley, A., & Looff, R. (2014). Grandparents as Parents: Investigating the Health and Well-Being of Trauma-Exposed Families.

Amanda Smith, Newport, KY

Amanda Smith was four months in on a new job when she received word that her grandson, Christian, had been removed from home.  Christian’s mother abused him and his father, Amanda’s son, struggled with addiction.  Without hesitation, Amanda agreed to become a parent the second time around.  Amanda focused all concern on the well being of Christian, adjusting her work schedule to better provide for him. Amanda did not know, however, the extent of challenges she would face taking responsibility of her 9-year old grandson’s safety and success.

Christian remained in a foster home for 5 months while his parents’ case went to trial.  “It broke my heart to know that I couldn’t take him immediately, although I did reassure him that he was coming to Grandma’s one way or another,” said Amanda.  Amanda requested legal support and a caseworker assured her an attorney would be appointed in court and that all legal matters would be handled then.  In court, however, Amanda was not appointed an attorney nor able to speak to the judge in request of legal help.  The court proceedings happened quickly and Amanda did not understand the legal terminology. “I walked out completely clueless,” she shared.

On December 20th, Amanda was given permission to take Christian home, but still had many unanswered questions. A caseworker handed her 4 plastic bags of clothing, a medical binder, and one picture of Christian.  Amanda was also given Christian’s medical card and leftover ADHD medication, but she could not contact the doctor who diagnosed Christian in foster care.  Amanda waited four hours in the Department of Community Based Services office before she was told Christian was approved to receive medical care and $186 per month through Kentucky’s Temporary Assistance Program. Amanda’s income would not allow for anything more, though it falls only slightly over the income guidelines.  “I got hit harder than I realized,” Amanda admitted.

Kentucky grandparents repeatedly share frustration with the lack of support they receive during the family transition.  Very few, if any, navigator programs that could offer such support exist in Kentucky, especially for working grandparents.  Amanda shared not being able to attend local support group meetings because they were held during her normal working hours. There are limited assistance options for working grandparents too. She pays for two childcare providers for Christian while working afternoons and weekends to make ends meet. “Christian’s needs should not be denied because his grandma is a taxpayer and hard worker with not much more than a GED,” said Amanda.

Since July of 2013, Amanda has handled the transition’s challenges almost entirely on her own.  She shares the same needs as many other grandparents caring for grandchildren in Kentucky.  “The courts and Cabinet need to re-think and re-write the process in how they handle our children,” stated Amanda. Recently, she connected with the family resource coordinator at Newport Intermediate School where Christian is a student.  According to Amanda, due to rises in heroin addiction in the northern Kentucky region, nearly half of students in grades 3-5 at the school are raised by grandparents. She hopes to create a grandparent support group at the school to give families the support and guidance she needed the past year.

 

By Emely Ortiz-Vega

Share your story
We want you to know that you are not alone!  This is your opportunity to share your story, whether good or bad.  How did your experience impact you?  What challenges did you face?  What kind of support did you have or lack?  Are there changes you’d like to see in the system?

Please note, your stories may be shared in future online posts, public articles, or presentations.

Click HERE to share.

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