Ohio unveils limited plan to pay relatives caring for kids

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Advocates for Ohio adults caring for related children in their custody insist a new law that raises payments for such caregivers doesn’t go far enough, signaling that achievement of a solution that satisfies all parties isn’t yet in hand.

At issue are 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.

Advocates have long asserted that the state must follow a 2017 federal appeals court decision ordering equality in payments to kinship caregivers, and in November sued to force adherence to that ruling.

Almost a year after promising a plan was in the works, Gov. Mike DeWine signed a bill into law late last year providing a partial fix. Advocates immediately criticized it as falling short.

The plan essentially provides a financial bridge for caregivers until they become licensed foster parents. It authorizes a $10.20 per child per day payment for kinship caregivers for up to nine months.

At that point, if caregivers don’t become licensed they give up the per diem and return to the current system, which provides far lower payments.

As part of the new law, DeWine signed an executive order directing the state human services agency to come up with a plan for making the payments by July 1.

Payments will be retroactive to Dec. 29, the day DeWine signed the bill. The state estimates it will pay about $17 million a year to the state’s approximately 2,600 kinship caregivers.

DeWine called such caregivers “an important and essential part of our child welfare system.”

As a result of the law and its payment system, the state asked a judge Wednesday to dismiss the federal lawsuit, saying it was now moot.

The new law “provides for the payments plaintiffs have requested,” Attorney General Dave Yost, representing the state human services agency, said in a court filing.

The plan is inadequate and won’t stop the lawsuit from moving ahead, said attorney Richard Dawahare. He said the promised payments are “a fraction” of what foster parents receive, and he criticized both the nine-month time limit and the fact the payments are contingent on whether the state actually allocates the money.

“These latest efforts, like the long existing inadequate program, are unfair and unequal for these vulnerable children and their relative foster parents,” Dawahare said.

The November lawsuit outlined the substantial gaps between payments received by foster parents and kinship caregivers.

For example, one plaintiff in the federal complaint cares for a 1-year-old boy in Cuyahoga County and receives $302 per month in state benefits under the current system. 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, according to the lawsuit.

The plan doesn’t meet the requirements of the 2017 court ruling and doesn’t adequately support caregivers, said Barb Turpin, co-secretary of the Ohio Grandparents/Kinship Coalition. She noted that few kinship caregivers want to become licensed foster parents.

The payment issue came to the fore in recent years as more kids were removed from their homes amid the opioid crisis. The caregivers bringing the lawsuit said the economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic have only made things worse.

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.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press