COLUMBUS — A lawsuit seeking to boost support payments for Ohio children in the custody of adult relatives was necessary because of the state’s inaction in addressing a disparity in those payments, an advocate for foster children said.
At issue in the federal lawsuit filed Nov. 19 are payments to relatives who aren’t licensed caregivers but are approved to care for children taken from their parents. The arrangement is often referred to as kinship care.
There is a substantial gap between payments to licensed foster care providers and payments to relatives, such as grandparents, aunts or uncles, who have been unexpectedly asked to care for kids to whom they’re related. Ohio has been under pressure from child advocates to follow a 2017 federal appeals court ruling ordering equality in such payments.
“It seemed like this was the direction we had to go,” said Barbara Turpin, a co-secretary of Ohio Grandparents/Kinship Coalition, which helped locate relatives involved in the lawsuit but is not a party itself.
“Hopefully this will get the caregivers who qualify for it the assistance they need,” she said.
Kimberly Hall, the director of Ohio’s human services agency, told The Associated Press in October 2019 that the agency planned to increase such payments. Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in February he was close to releasing his plan on the issue. But nothing has happened since.
Hall declined to comment through a spokesperson. The governor’s office released a report on ways to improve foster care the day after the lawsuit was filed. The report acknowledged that kinship caregivers often receive “little or no financial support.”
One plaintiff in the federal complaint cares for a 1-year-old boy in Cuyahoga County and receives $302 per month in state benefits under the current system. But licensed foster care parents in Cuyahoga County receive much higher amounts — from $615 to $2,371 per month per child — and even more if children have special needs, according to the lawsuit.
In Hillsboro in southwestern Ohio, Yolanda Clark welcomed word of the lawsuit, of which she is not part. She gained custody of her son’s three children — two girls and a boy, all under age 12 — in January after their parents couldn’t care for them.
The 51-year-old grandmother quit her job as a nursing home kitchen worker to take care of the children, who join her younger 17-year-old son at home. She receives only $505 a month in support for all three children.
If she were a licensed foster care parent caring for three children, she would receive a minimum of $1,800 a month for the three.
“I struggle every day. I cry a lot,” Clark said. “I just can’t see my grandkids go anywhere else. I just feel it’s not right.”
The payment issue has come to the fore in recent years as more kids are removed from their homes amid the opioid crisis. The caregivers bringing the lawsuit said the economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic have only made things worse.
The federal ruling that ordered equality in payments applied to Kentucky, Tennessee, Michigan and Ohio, the four states overseen by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee have all been making the payments, records show.