More than 44,000 children in this state are being raised by grandparents or relatives other than their parents, outside the formal child welfare system.
Add in all the children who rely on extended family in more informal ways to stay fed, clothed and sheltered and the number swells several times over.
I met a few of these kids whose parents are unable or unwilling to care for them, along with their kinship caregivers, at a small, but moving, ceremony Thursday at the state Capitol where six children were honored for submitting winning essays about their experiences.
They each received a $100 check donated by Twin Star Credit Union and some light-hearted banter from Lt. Gov. Brad Owen. Then it was off to Great Wolf Lodge in Grand Mound for some fun at the water park.
Each of the essays affirmed how important it is to support and sustain the time-honored tradition in our culture and others of extended families stepping up to nurture vulnerable youth whose ties to their parents have been severed by drug abuse, crime, death and other causes.
This is the most courageous group I work with, said Shelly Willis, executive director of Family Education and Support Services, an Olympia non-profit group working on behalf of families in need. These are families fighting to survive.
I was particularly a struck by the essay written by Beverly Barrett, a 14-year-old Lacey girl who will be a freshman this year at North Thurston High School. Heres a slightly abbreviated version for all to ponder.
My family lived in a huge house. Five bedrooms in a nice neighborhood. Sounds great right? It wasnt. The electric and water were always turned off. My mom was a drug addict and never home. That meant I had to take care of my sick grandmother while being the mom to my brother and sister. We didnt always have food. I was only 10.
Living with my grandparents now is amazing. It was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. My grandparents try to give us three children the world. Grampa may be grumpy a lot, but I know that I am still loved. Gramma teaches me new things all the time. Especially whats ladylike and whats not.
One thing Gramma did for me, that meant the most, was showing me Im loved and she cares about me, and I wont grow up to be my mom. They showed me Im special. They may be crazy, looney, strict, grumpy, loving, different, wild, but theyre unique and Im glad theyre mine.
Thats where Beverlys original essay ended. But she had an important footnote to share with the world.
A lot of people think that because my mom give us to my gramma and grampa that she doesnt care about us. Thats not true. She gave us to them because she does care.
Because gramma and grampa have us, mom has been able to work on her problems to get better. She has over 7 months clean and sober now, is doing better than she ever has. She is really involved with us, and is working hard to get us back with her so that we all have the life we deserve to have.
Kathy Vermillion shares her granddaughters hopes and dreams, but shes takes it one day at a time. Shes all too familiar with her daughters demons and history of relapses.
But she is doing a amazing job on her recovery, she said of her daughter, who attended the ceremony Thursday. Its the best Ive ever seen her.
Vermillion retired early from her state job to raise her three grandchildren. At the end of the day, Im exhausted, she said.
In the past 10 years, state lawmakers increased state funding to help kinship caregivers, including $2.1 million per biennium for emergency needs such as clothes, food, legal services, help with utility bills and rent payments.
Kinship caregivers responsible for 3,300 kids took advantage of the Kinship Caregiver Support Program in 2012. The benefits of the program far outweigh the costs. For example, if 25 percent of those 3,300 kids entered into foster care, cost to the state would be about $5.4 million a year.
In addition, studies show that in most cases children raised by relatives fare better than those in foster homes.
Extended family members throwing their grandkids, siblings, nieces and nephews a lifeline is not foreign to me. I saw it in my own family when my moms younger sister was all but abandoned in a Tacoma hotel room in the 1950s after their mother died and their father lost interest in fatherhood. Aunt Ruthie lived with us in Shelton through her teen years, teaching me how to dance and read. My father gave her away at her wedding. She grew into a loving wife and mother, and a darn good artist to boot. I can envision a successful life for Beverly Barrett, too.
For more information about kinship caregiving, visit www.dshs.wa.gov/kinshipcare/.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org