Holly Dillon has struggled to make her mortgage and car payments since two relatives were placed in her home by state social workers last year.
She doesn’t want the children to enter Kentucky’s foster care system, but Dillon isn’t sure she can pay for everything they need and still keep her home in Owensboro.
“I’ve gone into debt,” Dillon said. “I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t want to let them go into foster care.”
She and thousands of other family caregivers cheered in October when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision that said relatives caring for abused and neglected kids in Kentucky should be paid just like foster parents. The state had previously provided a $300 monthly stipend to relatives who care for abused and neglected children but that program was suspended in 2013 under former Gov. Steve Beshear due to budget cuts.
Dillon applied for the new relative care payments, which the state says average $750 a month. But last week, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which oversees child protection, sent Dillon a letter saying she does not qualify for the program. The letter doesn’t say why she was denied and tells her to hire a lawyer if she wants to appeal.
Dillon isn’t the only caregiver who has received a blanket denial.
Richard Dawahare, the Lexington lawyer who successfully sued the cabinet on behalf of relative caregivers, said he has heard from at least a dozen family caregivers who have been denied payments he believes they are entitled to receive under the court’s decision.
Dawahare said he’s tried to work with the cabinet since October to expedite payments to family caregivers, but a second lawsuit is possible if they continue to deny payments to people he thinks are clearly eligible for them.
“We are still looking at next steps,” Dawahare said. “This is the child’s money. This is about the welfare of children.”
Advocate Norma Hatfield has fielded more than 100 emails and phone calls from relative caregivers since the cabinet announced it was accepting applications for the program in early February. Many can’t even get through to the cabinet to see if they qualify, she said. Others are being denied with little or no explanation.
Since early February, the Elizabethtown advocate for grandparents and other relatives who are raising children has filed two complaints with the cabinet’s ombudsman office over problems with applications for relative payment and the lack of an appeals process.
“They are getting this blanket denial letter that does not tell them why,” Hatfield said. “There’s also no appeals process. It just says to contact an attorney.”
Hatfield said the denials could mean more kids going into an already over-taxed foster care system. Last year, 11,387 Kentucky children lived in foster care, up 15 percent from 2012.
Being removed from the care of a relative will only result in more trauma and long-term problems for these kids, who are already in crisis, she said.
Hatfield said she knows many caregivers, such as Dillon, who desperately want to provide a stable, loving home to an abused or neglected child but don’t have the financial means to do so.
“The emails and letters I get are heartbreaking,” Hatfield said. “People are going bankrupt and losing their homes… These are grandparents who are living on Social Security and they are taking in sibling groups of three to eight kids. That was never in their budget.”
As of March 5, cabinet officials said they had approved payments for 35 relative caregivers since announcing a hotline and email address on Feb. 13 for people to sign up for the program. The cabinet had received more than 3,000 calls to the hotline.
The cabinet said in a news release that relatives are eligible for payment if the state “places the child with the relative, has conducted a home study and background checks, and if CHFS either retains custody of the child or has transferred the child from CHFS’ custody to the temporary custody of the relative or fictive kin.” Fictive kin means a close family friend. Caregivers with permanent custody are not eligible for payments, cabinet officials said.
In a statement, cabinet officials denied accusations that they are deliberately making the application process cumbersome to delay or deny payment to relatives in an attempt to save the state money.
“The cabinet has no intent to slow down implementing payment schedules for qualifying families and is committed to complying with this court ruling in the most effective and accurate manner possible,” said Doug Hogan, a spokesman for the cabinet.
The cabinet has previously said providing payments to family caregivers would cost $14.3 million for the fiscal year beginning July 1. In the second year it would cost $15.3 million. The cabinet said relatives of more than 1,500 kids should qualify for payments in the first year. In the second year, relative caregivers of 1,700 kids should be entitled to the monthly payments.
Dawahare and Hatfield said Dillon and others are probably being unfairly denied payment because they immediately volunteered to have children placed in their care instead of allowing the child to first go into foster care.
“I have heard from multiple relatives who have been denied payment because their family member was not first placed in foster care before being placed in their care,” Hatfield said.
In Dillon’s case, she has met all of the stated requirements for the program, Dawahare said. She has temporary custody of the children and completed a background check and home evaluation. State social workers visit the children every month, she said.
“They are still in the custody of the cabinet,” Dawahare said. “She should be eligible for payments. Just because the cabinet never had physical custody of those children, they are still in the care of the cabinet.”
When asked specifically if a child had to previously be in foster care before becoming eligible for the relative payment program, cabinet officials declined to answer the question.
Other caregivers say they’re frustrated by mixed messages from the cabinet — or no response at all.
Melissa Fiorelli said she was told by a state social worker that she had to complete foster care training after three relatives were placed in her care last summer. Fiorelli, who lives in Kenton County, later learned she didn’t have to go through the training to be paid as a relative caregiver.
After the cabinet announced the new relative pay program last month, Fiorelli sent the cabinet emails to see if she qualified. She also called a hotline number multiple times. No one has called her back.
“I just need someone who can answer the question — should I proceed with relative care payments or am I a foster parent?” Fiorelli said. “I want to be a relative care provider. But I can’t get a straight answer.”
Fiorelli and her husband had to move into a larger, more expensive home after the kids were placed with them. She, too, is struggling to provide everything the kids need.
Why should they be punished because a relative and not a stranger is taking care of them, she asks?
Dawahare said he has heard from other family caregivers who have been told they must go through foster care training to care for relatives. One caregiver, he said, was told that during the training the children would be removed from their care, placed in a foster home and then returned to them once the training is complete.
“That’s just not true,” Dawahare said. “That’s contradictory to the law.”
Cabinet officials told the Herald-Leader last week that relative caregivers do not have to complete foster care training to receive relative care payment.
“Relatives are not required to go through foster care training in order to be eligible for the payment,” Hogan said. “The only requirements are: 1) the relative/fictive kin has only temporary custody… and that the cabinet performed a home study or otherwise approved the home.”
After the Herald-Leader sent the cabinet a list of questions about delays in the application process on March 2, the cabinet announced March 5 it was making changes.
Those changes include hiring temporary staff to handle the influx of calls to a hotline number for relative care applications. The cabinet also announced it would take 45 days to determine if a relative is eligible for payments.
The cabinet said relative caregivers with internet access should email the cabinet at DCBSChildProtection@ky.gov rather than call the Kinship Support Hotline at 877-565-5608. That will make the application process faster, they said. The cabinet also said it would make payments retroactive to the date that the relative contacted the cabinet.