When Glenda Weaver heard through the grapevine about a couple in their 80s raising their great-great-grandchildren, she went to their home near St. Maries and knocked on the door.
The Coeur d’Alene woman wanted to pass along whatever information she could to make their unexpected return to parenting easier.
“I’ll tell you what, they’re giving those kids love,” said Weaver, who has been raising two of her own grandchildren since 2003. “They’re doing the best they can.”
Finding families like that and helping connect them with resources has long been a passion for Weaver. Now it’s also her job, thanks to a new state program funded by the federal government.
Weaver recently was hired as one of seven Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTAs, working in Idaho to provide support to relatives raising children. The state Department of Health and Welfare noticed that population of caregivers growing in recent years and applied for federal funds to provide them with additional support. Weaver and the other volunteers will work to start support groups, raise community awareness and provide access to resources for relatives raising children in Idaho’s five northern counties.
The federal government pays the volunteers an $833 monthly stipend and provides training. Health and Welfare is using existing state resources to provide computers, desks, phones and office space. Health and Welfare officials say the goal is to boost support offered to the caregivers and to raise community awareness.
“This is kind of an invisible thing,” said Scott Burlingame, who manages the project for Health and Welfare. “It’s not generally realized … how common it is and what the impact is on families. It’s in everybody’s interest to be educated because … those kids are going to turn out about as well as those parents do in parenting them.”
Some 18,000 children in Idaho live with an extended family member, Burlingame said, adding that research shows the primary reasons are parents who are incarcerated or drug-addicted. Sometimes families living on a budget can be brought close to poverty when they take on raising additional children, said Ken Perry, a project supervisor.
The program has funding for one year, but state officials hope it will be extended.
Weaver, whose region stretches from the Canadian border south to the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, said she tells the families she contacts about food banks in their area or churches giving away free clothing. She tells them about the $309 monthly stipend for which many are eligible under the Temporary Assistance to Families in Idaho program. She also tells them that many North Idaho schools will provide free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch.
“Just let the schools know that you’re a relative raising a relative child, because they base it on the child’s income,” Weaver advises.
She added, “A lot of them don’t know they’re eligible.”
Many of the families are nervous because they fear seeking public assistance will result in the children being placed in foster care, Weaver said. “A lot of this is just winning their trust,” she said.
Perry said Health and Welfare has no intention of jumping into family affairs unless families want the state’s assistance with problems including abuse or neglect. Some relative caregivers become licensed foster care providers; others do not, he said. Caregivers include not only grandparents, but aunts, uncles, cousins and older siblings who just want to care for their family members.
“The cost to the state is minimal,” Perry said of the new program. “But it increases our capacity to serve Idaho citizens better.”