Ohio sued over lower payments to relatives caring for kids

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — People in Ohio who have taken custody of children they’re related to are being illegally denied state foster care payments to help cover their child-raising costs, according to a federal lawsuit filed Thursday.

At issue are payments to relatives who aren’t licensed caregivers but are approved to care for children taken from their parents. The arrangement is often referred to as kinship care.

A substantial disparity exists in payments to licensed foster care providers and payments to 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.

One person involved in Thursday’s lawsuit is caring for a one-year-old boy in Cuyahoga County, and receiving $302 per month in state benefits under the current system, according to the lawsuit. But licensed foster care parents in Cuyahoga County receive much higher amounts — from $615 to $2,371 per month per child — and even more if children have special needs, the lawsuit said.

“These vulnerable abused children have the same needs, at the most critical time of their lives, as the children going to non-relatives,” said Richard Dawahare, a Kentucky attorney representing children and their caregivers in three Ohio counties — Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton. He also brought the original lawsuit that led to the 2017 court ruling.

The issue has come to the fore in recent years as more kids are being removed from their homes amid the opioid crisis, and the economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic have only made things worse, the lawsuit said.

The gap in payments also disproportionately affects Black relatives caring for children, the lawsuit said. While Black people represent about 12% of the Ohio population, Black children make up 24% of those placed with relatives, the lawsuit said.

Kimberly Hall, the director of Ohio’s human services agency, told The Associated Press in October 2019 the agency planned to increase such payments. Republican Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said in February he was close to releasing his plan on the issue. But nothing has happened since.

A message was left with the state seeking comment on Thursday’s complaint.

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. Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee have all been making the payments, records show.

Relatives caring for children often face more challenges than licensed foster parents, according to an analysis of the payment disparity released this week by Policy Matters Ohio.

“While foster parents make a choice and plan to become caregivers, kinship caregivers are often abruptly asked to make a dramatic, unexpected change in their life and take on a major new commitment,” said the report by budget researcher Will Petrik.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press