Editor's note: Correction appended.
SAN ANTONIO — Mercedes Bristol isn’t afraid to say she thought long and hard about taking in her five grandchildren.
She was entering her final decade of work, looking toward retirement when her son and his girlfriend started neglecting their own children. One was dealing with addiction, the other lost a job and could not provide. After multiple Child Protective Service interventions, Bristol decided to take them in, though her money was limited and house too small for five kids ranging from 5 to 14 years.
Five years later, she says it’s been like starting parenthood all over again, with five growing children presenting various behavioral and disciplinary needs. It’s not how the 62-year-old imagined growing older.
“At our age, we’re not taking care of ourselves,” Bristol said. “We’re surviving to try and keep these children safe.”
Bristol and other grandparents meet monthly at a San Antonio elementary school, offering each other support coping with the emotional toll of being primary caretakers for their grandchildren. Echos fill the stories they tell: they were sailing to retirement, dealing with the medical woes of getting older when they saw their grandchildren suffering and decided to step in. Now, they fear dying before their grandkids are raised.
In Texas, more than 600,000 children under age 18 were living with a grandparent in 2014, according to U.S. Census data. But as Texas lawmakers confront a mounting crisis in the state's foster care system, pledging to overhaul the state’s Department of Children and Families, overlooked are the older adults like Bristol who quietly take in their abandoned or neglected grandchildren.
Oftentimes they do it out of love, and fear of the children becoming lost in the foster care system if they let the state take custody. But taking on the burden does not come with any money, and help from the state is not guaranteed.
The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program offers federal cash assistance for families with children who need help to tide them over until they are financially sound again. But it's hard for grandparents who take in their grandchildren to turn to the program for help buying beds, clothes and groceries.
In 2015, 8,500 Texas children in the program were being taken care of by their grandparents, according to the latest data from the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
Because the program's eligibility rules have not been updated since 1995, “it has become less and less useful and hard to get,” said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst for the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning policy organization.
Texas gives grandparents who qualify a one-time $1,000 payment for taking care of grandchildren. But assets like cars, retirement savings and social security benefits make it harder for many older adults to qualify. Cooper said grandparents are sometimes told that adding the word “kinship” to their applications might prompt officials to determine eligibility for the children without considering the grandparents' assets, but that still does not always work.
“They’re denying kids who have a non-parental situation, and almost always that’s an inappropriate denial,” Cooper said. “There’s definitely things HHSC could be doing on their own. They could work to do some system changes so they’re coding and not denying these cases inappropriately. They would probably argue that’s harder than I make it seem, but I’m sure there’s a better way to do it.”
In Houston, Sammye Hughes thought nothing of it when she had to buy a car last year. She had no choice: it was either keep pouring money into her broken down 21-year-old car or worry each time she turned the ignition that she and her three grandchildren would be stranded.
After years of taking care of her grandchildren, now ranging in age from 9 to 12, being denied food stamps and standing in as many as five food pantry lines every day, a state worker told Hughes last year that she and her grandchildren qualified for TANF. The 67-year-old started using the $197-per-month to supplement her retirement and social security incomes. But in September when it was time to renew her eligibility, she said she was shocked to learn that the 2011 car she was making payments on made her ineligible for the program.
"If they were foster children, they would pay me to have them," Hughes said. "If CPS had taken them out and placed them in my house as foster care, I would get money for them staying here. But because I'm their grandmother that their mother dumped them on, I get nothing."
The health commission says caseworkers aren't supposed to deny benefits for children in these cases if their grandparents have too many assets to qualify.
Staff was reminded of that policy in an April 1 bulletin, according to an email statement from Carrie Williams, chief press officer for the agency. The agency is also supposed to inform grandparents about the one-time payment and document whether they requested or declined to apply for it.
Bristol said she and other grandparents are organizing for the upcoming state legislative session to convince lawmakers to increase financial assistance for older caretakers.
Texas lawmakers have tried in the past to acknowledge the nuances of grandparents and other relatives caring for children under 18. In 2015, seven bills were filed proposing revisions to TANF eligibility policies for kinship caregivers and the one-time grandparent payment, but none passed. Among them, former state Rep. Sylvester Turner sponsored a bill that would have allowed relatives more cash payments and another that would have forced the state to exclude vehicles as part of the TANF eligibility process.
Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health and Human Services, said in an email statement "ensuring the safety and protection of our children is one of the legislature's most important responsibilities."
"As we begin the session, we'll continue to evaluate the best approach to providing the necessary resources and supports to help all parents, grandparents, foster parents, and adoptive parents provide a safe and loving home for the children in their care," Schwertner said.
Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, said it all comes down to the state’s “moral obligation to take care of these kids.” He said potential fixes during the upcoming session could go beyond increasing TANF cash assistance to giving grandparents and relatives monthly stipends to help with their children’s expenses. He said the stipend would be unlikely to match or surpass what foster families receive from the state.
“It’s far less expensive than foster care, we know that,” Uresti said. “They’re in a better place. It’s a win-win, if you will, for the children and the department and for the grandparents because they get to have their grandkids instead of them being off with a stranger.”
Read more Tribune stories on this topic:
- Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wants faith-based communities to help find foster and adoptive homes for kids in need.
- The governor's office has put the Department of Family and Protective Services on notice to come up with a plan to help foster children find home placements faster and seek out those facing abuse.
Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the mother of Mercedes Bristol's grandchildren.