Unjust for grandparents and kids

Thousands of grandparents took a well-deserved bow when Ruth Dyson told the country on Budget night:

"Many grandparents around the country are playing an especially valuable role in caring for grandchildren when they cannot be with their parents. They are sharing their skills and experience with younger generations. They can be great mentors and role models and can make such a difference to young people’s lives."

Later, the grandparents read the fine print.

As Social Development Minister she was announcing a decision to give $24.6 million more over four years to more than 7500 caregivers, including many grandparents, who are parenting more than 10,300 children who cannot be looked after by their parents.

She defined that $24.6m as "not only a positive investment in our children but also recognition of the valuable role played by caregivers such as grandparents, and the costs they face".

That fine print revealed the first of two flaws.

Those "valuable people, great mentors and role models who can make such a difference to young people’s lives" – who are currently getting less than other foster parents – will wait until April 1 next year for parity and that pay rise.

Even then, the increase is not likely to change their lives or the lives of the children they care for.

Sample increases: Up $5.49 to $127.99 (what a strange figure) a week for a child up to four years old, up $8.80 to $148.53 for a child up to nine, up $21.27 to $179.19 for those 14-plus.

But there’s more – or to be precise, there’s less. A second major flaw in the system has still not been fixed. It involves an official ruling that there are apparently three categories of people doing all those good things that Ruth Dyson praised.

There are what are known in the ministry jargon as "non-kin foster parents" who are caring for children they are not related to as the result of a formal CYF care and protection decision. They also get "add-on" payments from the ministry because of "support orders".

Those allowances paid to them include a quarterly clothing allowance of $376.15 each fostered child, pocket money of $12.93 a week (another odd amount) and $89.60 as both Christmas and birthday money.

That’s group one. Then there are grandparents or other relatives who parent children from their family or whanau under the same CYF arrangement.

And there are others, grandparents or other family who understandably, without hesitation, see themselves as duty-bound to parent related children, but, are not covered by a ministry "support order".

They are family members who step in with no CYF involvement, often long-term, who parent children who are their relatives, actually or effectively made orphans by domestic crisis.

Defined simply as "kin carers" they are still missing out on extras worth $2356.16 a year for a 14-year-old in formal foster care. They continue to fall between the cracks in the grand plan announced by Ruth Dyson for next April.

It’s almost as if the minister and the ministry believe: "Well, family should care for family anyway."

The children on the outer because of this are also penalised.

As it stands – and as the government seems to want to go on – they could look longingly across a suburban fence and see others of their age and background with clothes, presents and the teenage must-haves that they and their family carers cannot afford but which the state finances for the others next door.

Most grandparents who find themselves in this predicament, raising their grandchildren, make huge financial sacrifices to provide a safe, stable and loving home for children who so often are physically and/or psychologically scarred by the rough, uncaring and sometimes dangerous years they have lived through.

Often too those same caring grandparents have to wage their own bitter legal battle to prevent the children they love and care for from being returned to that terrible environment and dangerously neglectful parents.

They often face huge legal bills to establish safe custodial arrangements for the children – while their proven faulty parents, frequently on a benefit, get legal aid.

Unlike legal foster parents, who are younger than them and mostly have at least one income to draw from, the "grans" spend what was going to be their retirement nest egg and re-mortgage themselves to buy the bigger home needed and meet the many costs of raising children.

They lose what they believed would be the golden years of their retirement.

Where the plight of the children reflects events in their family life they could never have foreseen, grandparents have to weather a double grief.

And there is the heartbreak of facing sons and daughters across courtrooms believing that the children they once shared should never be allowed into the custody of parents who now cannot cope, perhaps suffering the aftermath of drugs, violence, abuse and jail.

Diane Vivian, 58, of Birkenhead, see the issues from many disadvantage points.

She and her husband Erin, 59, have been "no kin" grandparents to two sisters, now aged 15 and 17, for the past 10 years, and for nine of those years Diane has been a driving force as national convener of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust which she founded.

From her experience she talks without personal details about common problems and also extremes – like a couple with eight "non-kin" kids in their care, the youngest of them autistic.

Diane knows what a difference those $2356 annual add-on payments make. Because of the legal arrangements involved in the care she and Erin give their "two granddaughters – that’s how we think of them" – they don’t get that much-needed cash.

They don’t argue the case for themselves but for those blood grandparents who are carrying the same responsibilities and don’t qualify either.

Diane: "What really presses my button is the situation of these elderly carers, often on fixed incomes dealing with traumatised children, having, for instance, to decide against spending money on their own health and welfare so that little Johnny can go on a school trip."

So she praises the April payments which will then match across foster and "non-kin" households.

But she is far from happy that people in real need have to wait all those months for that money to arrive.

And she is very clearly upset – even angry – over the failure to fix the "add-ons" issue.

She will continue fighting this injustice.

She believes the discrimination involved in the two different payment systems is a breach of UN Rights of the Child rules.

To say nothing of it being an injustice to, in Ruth Dyson’s words, the "great mentors and role models who can make such a difference to young people’s lives" but unfairly have to cope with less.

As do the children they share their love and their life with.

Auckland