Grandparents who step in to raise their grandchildren when the parents cannot are often called the “unsung heroes” of family life. What is less known is that they are also unsung heroes of the social system. When a child is cared for by a foster parent, the government will pay the caregiver up to $900 a month as well as cover some additional expenses that may arise such as dentist bills, tutoring, clothes, sports and travelling expenses. When a grandparent steps in they generally do not receive such generous help.
Over the past decade, various Provinces have enacted legislation that includes extended family and significant others as the first placement options when children need to be cared for by someone other than their parents. A 2006 census revealed that at least 37, 000 Canadian children under 18 live only with a grandparent.
Esme Fuller- Thomson, a University of Toronto professor of social work has examined this issue for 15 years and she sees an increasing trend: “There’s a disproportionate amount of turning to grandparents – which is fine, if we’re giving them a little money to help… But they’re the poorest of the poor” She says.
The facts bear this out: the median income for senior families is $15, 000 less than the median income of their younger counterparts. What’s more, older persons may have increased healthcare costs of their own and are more likely to be living on fixed income. Many are living on modest income supports that were never designed to also support children. The patchwork of available supports is difficult to navigate and some programs rule out people with assets, meaning that grandparents who have paid off their home but are cash poor might be ineligible for these benefits. Even when funding is available, navigating the maze of government branches can be daunting.
“You don’t know who to ask,” says Susan Eng, CARP’s VP of Advocacy. “A lot of issues in this sector don’t grab as much public attention because they’re hard-luck cases and people don’t like to talk about them. But funding for these families is really building for the future”, she adds.
In Ontario, the Temporary Care Allowance provides $231/month per child to the grandparents together with health and dental benefits which can prove invaluable for children with special needs. The benefit was designed for family members and other adults who assume care for a child when the biological parent is incapacitated and it has existed in its various incarnations since 1927. Despite its name, the allowance was intended to continue so long as needed and so long as no one took on the legal obligation as a parent.
In 2006, some but not all regional offices began to cancel benefits on the basis that they had gone on too long or the grandparents had legal guardianship or custody despite the clear wording of Policy Directives that specifically allowed such situations. In 2008, new policy directives further narrowed the interpretation and deleted these examples. As a result, a rash of grandparents was suddenly told they were no longer eligible.