D.C. Program Would Compensate Grandparents for Child Care

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At least 25 states have a reimbursement program for relatives who care for kids who otherwise might end up in foster care. In Washington D.C., city officials are considering making payments to grandparents who take over custody of their grandkids.


Now officials here in Washington, DC, want to put grandparents on the payroll. Washington is the latest government to consider reimbursing relatives who care for children and keep them out of foster care. Eric Niiler reports.

ERIC NIILER reporting:

The walls of Shirley Bird's(ph) cramped three-bedroom apartment are plastered with framed photos. The 60-year-old grandmother looks through a pair of oversized glasses at a lineup of little kids.

Ms. SHIRLEY BIRD (Grandmother): The little fat baby between there is the fourth and the fifth is the little boy right between Elijah(ph) with his hand holding up like that. And this is my daughter.

NIILER: The last image is of a smiling, attractive woman in her late teens. Maybe she's going to the prom, or on a big date. But today Bird's 42-year=old daughter, Johnnie Mae(ph), is a mess, her life ruined by crack cocaine and a worsening case of AIDS.

Ms. BIRD: She can't seem to get her life together. She do well for a while, and then she goes back to using drugs and, you know, staying out and then she gets sick.

NIILER: After raising four kids herself, Bird is now raising her daughter's four children, ages six to 15. Bird quit working 10 years ago because the kids needed a home and a real mother. Now the family of five survives on $12,000 a year in welfare and Social Security. They buy groceries with food stamps. DC officials are now considering giving grandparents like Bird between $700 and $800 a month for each child. It would be the country's most generous family reimbursement program.

(Soundbite of door slamming)

CHELSEA(ph) (Granddaughter): Hi.

Ms. BIRD: Did you do well in your test, Chelsea?


(Soundbite of phone beeps)

Ms. BIRD: Who are you calling?

NIILER: After school, 14-year-old Chelsea heads right for the phone. But Bird checks on her homework first. It's these hardworking grandparents that the city wants to reward. Mimi Castaldi of the local AARP chapter says the city proposal requires grandparents to get legal custody of their grandchildren and undergo a criminal background check. Castaldi says children who stay within their extended family are better off. It's also cheaper in the long run than putting kids in city-run foster care.

Ms. MIMI CASTALDI (AARP, Washington, DC): The grandparents are there. They step up to the plate and they provide a continuous home for the children. And it prevents the city from having to deal with it in the child welfare system. It prevents the children from living with uncertainty.

NIILER: But not all experts agree. Mark Courtney is director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago. He says some grandparents feel an obligation to care for their grandchildren but just can't handle it. And what about aunts and uncles?

Mr. MARK COURTNEY (Chapin Hall Center for Children): Actually about two-fifths of relatives caring for children in the child welfare system are not grandparents. They tend to be younger, better-educated, in better health. Why are we singling out grandparents?

NIILER: Courtney says some of these programs may actually encourage families to break up.

Mr. COURTNEY: Paying off grandparents or other relatives to take children in, in some ways allows the state to avoid its responsibility to try to help parents who are having a hard time.

NIILER: Courtney says the grandparents give vital emotional support but need training and oversight by child welfare officials. DC City Councilwoman Linda Cropp--since so many grandparents are already doing this job, they need some extra financial help. For example, she says some seniors sacrifice their medication to support their grandchildren. The DC plan will cover about 8,000 families. Cropp says she wants to make sure that only the neediest get the stipend and that people don't take it as an entitlement.

Councilwoman LINDA CROPP (Washington, DC): We won't do something in the District that will send us into bankruptcy, but it will provide an opportunity for us to give some type of assistance.

NIILER: The council will vote next month on the proposal.

For her part, Shirley Bird says she would use the extra cash for schoolbooks and transportation.

Ms. BIRD: Oh, that would be a--definitely be a big help. Then maybe I could get a car, because I'm tired of riding buses and the train.

NIILER: Her eldest granddaughter goes to a performing arts high school and wants to be an actress.

For NPR News, I'm Eric Niiler.


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