COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio plans to increase payments to approved relatives caring for children who were taken from their parents even when the family members aren't licensed caregivers, as more kids are being removed from their homes amid the opioid crisis.
The increased payments, ordered by a court and expected to start in the next few months, are meant to eliminate a disparity between licensed foster care providers and relatives such as grandparents or aunts and uncles who have been unexpectedly asked to care for kids they're related to.
Ohio has been under pressure from child advocates to follow a 2017 federal appeals court ruling ordering equality in such payments. The state is currently designing a program to satisfy the decision, said Kimberly Hall, director of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
Adults caring for their young relatives "are just as valuable in our system of support as foster parents and any others who have critical roles in informing and impacting a child's trajectory," Hall said.
The issue has taken on new significance because of the opioid crisis, which has seen a huge increase in the number of children taken from homes because of parents' or guardians' addictions. About 16,000 children are in custody in Ohio today, a more than 20% increase from five years ago.
Currently, relatives who have custody of their children but aren't licensed foster care providers — known as kinship providers — receive around $290 per month for one child, according to advocates for the change, though that can vary by county.
By contrast, licensed foster care providers receive from $600 to $6,000 per month for one child. That doesn't include extra payments for a child with special needs, though those payments only kick in once a court has granted custody.
In central Ohio, Crystal Posey has been making do with $293 a month to care for her 2-year-old granddaughter. The 48-year-old office medical manager makes around $36,000 a year and isn't paid for the days off she takes when she has to care for the toddler, though she does receive a county stipend to defray childcare costs.
Still, supplies like car seats and clothes add up, she said.
"It's a shame that you would pay a stranger to take care of your family more than you would pay a family member to take care of them," said Posey, of Reynoldsburg, in suburban Columbus.
Becoming a licensed foster care provider, which would make relatives eligible for the higher amounts, isn't an easy choice, said Barbara Turpin of the Ohio Grandparents/Kinship Coalition.
Passing background checks and ongoing certification requirements is time-consuming, and relatives usually aren't looking to serve children they're not related to, she said.
"In most cases, when a relative is approached, they take that child because of their connection with child in the family, not realizing all the additional stressors and needs and issues that come up along the way," Turpin said.
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.
The payments are expected to cost Ohio millions, but the total amount is unclear, and the state wouldn't provide any figures. In Michigan, the Department of Health & Human Services has spent about $5 million for payments to unlicensed relatives since the Glisson ruling.
Kentucky has spent about $27 million. Tennessee was already been making the payments before the lawsuit.
Paying relatives who choose not to become licensed the extra amount makes sense given the financial challenges they take on, said Richard Dawahare, a Kentucky attorney who brought the original lawsuit.
"They're stepping up at a moment's notice to take care of that child," he said.
Dawahare has filed a second lawsuit against Kentucky over allegations that the state is wrongly interpreting the ruling and not making the required payments to all eligible caregivers. He also plans a lawsuit against Ohio for not beginning the payments yet.
The higher payments required by the appeals court ruling are coming too late for Nicole Welch, of Green, in northeast Ohio. She and her husband took in a cousin's heroin-addicted baby girl in 2016 and struggled to make ends meet because of the care and medical attention the girl needed.
Eventually, Welch, 39, and her husband chose to adopt the girl, and they have also since become licensed foster care providers. They also have a 13-year-old daughter.
"The money would have helped. We didn't have anything for a baby," Welch said.