JJ and his younger brothers and sister ran away to their grandparents’ house because grandma and grandpa were the only stability they had. JJ’s mother suffered from serious mental health problems including diagnoses of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. She became so unwell that she was unable to care for her four children. Overwhelmed with raising the children on his own, their father turned to alcohol to numb his pain and often became abusive. As the oldest, JJ felt it was his duty to protect his younger siblings. Although JJ took the brunt of the physical abuse, none of the children could escape the verbal abuse.
One by one, the children moved in with their maternal grandparents. When their father protested, Child Protective Services became involved and their grandparents agreed to become licensed foster parents to care for them full time. Other family members pitched in as well. “My aunt stopped going to school and put her life on hold, and took up a management position at Arby’s in order help with the financial challenges of raising us,” JJ explains.
Ever since JJ’s family made the commitment to take on the four children, they have been faced with the financial demands of providing for four growing young people and meeting the often bureaucratic and tedious regulations that foster care licensing requires. First, their house was too small to meet the state foster care requirements, so JJ’s grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-uncles built a larger one. The house still didn’t fit regulations so the family had to install handrails, paint, and build additional rooms. Many of the family members who helped build the house died before finishing the extra work. The family pulled all-nighters to make sure the house would be finished on time, so JJ and his brothers and sister wouldn’t be split up.
On top of home costs, the family spent $500 more per week on groceries alone. They spent $1500 on gas each month because they drove the children an hour each way to school since they had already switched schools four times before entering foster care. JJ’s grandfather retired from Daimler Chrysler and his grandmother continues to work as a manager at Taco Bell. Between home construction costs and meeting the children’s basic needs, they had to file bankruptcy last year because the family was spending more than they could bring in. JJ recalls a time they were six months behind on the house payment and were being threatened with eviction. “We all felt responsible,” he explains. “It ruined my grandparents’ credit.”
The commitment of JJ’s grandparents and aunt is bearing fruit. JJ is doing well. He is in his third year at Oakland University. He works on a local level with Department of Human Services in Michigan as an advocate and with a non-profit called FosterClub as a national advocate. Last summer, he did an internship in the office of Senator Debbie Stabenow. JJ’s story is a success, but he is always sure to say that it is only because of the help of his grandparents.
JJ’s success came at great cost. His grandparents continue to struggle month to month to make house payments and recover from bankruptcy. Much of their hardship came from the cost of home renovations that licensing laws required. Policy makers did not create these laws with related foster families in mind. Laws that allow different licensing standards for relative foster parents and non-relative foster parents (while still protecting children, for example through criminal record checks) could have helped give JJ and his siblings a safe and stable home with their grandparents without inflicting serious damage on the family’s finances.