Mary Soda and her husband have had legal custody of their grandson Carlito Lopez since 1998.
"We love him," Soda said. "He's our son."
The Sodas are among New York's estimated 250,000 kinship households -- in which relatives are raising their family members' children.
For the first two years of caring for Carlito, the Sodas were also among the tens of thousands of relative caregivers who don't receive state financial assistance and don't make use of the community resources available to them.
When Mary Soda, now 51, sued her daughter and won custody, she and her husband simply made room in their South Buffalo home and their budget for their grandson.
"We didn't know anything about public assistance and no one told us about it," Soda said. "Raising a child is expensive, but we just worked and worked. We did what we had to do to make it all work."
But the social service system does give relative caregivers, regardless of their own income, financial assistance through its Temporary Assistance to Needy Families' "non-parent" grant, in which eligibility is solely determined by the child's income.
Along with monthly cash payments, kinship caregivers may also receive medical insurance for the child and a child care subsidy.
Nationally, grants range from $81 to more than $500 per month per child. In Erie County, it's $380.
"It's not a whole lot of money, but it does help, because he's in a lot of different activities," said Soda, who first learned of the grant in 2000.
Erie County Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert said of the 2,700 county residents who are currently receiving public assistance, 40 percent are "cousins, aunts, grandmothers -- caring for [their relatives'] children."
It is believed that most eligible kinship caregivers aren't enrolled in these social service programs, said Gerard Wallace. Wallace is the director of the New York State Kinship Navigator, which links relative caregivers with community resources all over the state. He said 140,000 of the state's eligible caregivers -- about 20 percent -- received the "nonparent" grant in 2009.
"A significant percentage of the population doesn't know about the funding," Wallace said.
The lack of awareness is widespread, according to last year's Journal of Social Work's article "Kinship Care and 'Child-Only Grants' Low Participation Despite Benefits." Wallace said the problem lies in the misconception that the kinship caregivers' income is weighed in the application process.
Not only is caregivers' income not factored in, "nonparent" grants have no time limits on eligibility and no work requirements.
"They are a special kind of grant, exempt from the usual welfare requirements," Wallace said. Caregivers don't have to be related to the child they are raising and don't have to have court-ordered custody. They do have to present proof that the children reside in their residence full-time and that they are largely responsible for their care.
By law only biological parents are legally responsible for their children financially. When other family members fill in, financial aid and other support can be provided by social services. These surrogates may also be eligible for housing subsidies and generous tax benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit.
Taking on the responsibility of raising a child can compromise finances, and research has found higher poverty rates among kinship households, which tend to be headed by grandparents.
Recent figures estimate grandparents account for 60 percent to 80 percent of relative caregivers, and the number is increasing. A Pew Research Center study found that one in 10 grandchildren has resided with a grandparent since in 2007.
The financial demands of providing for grandchildren have caused some people to delay their retirements or exhaust their retirement savings, the Journal of Social Work reported.
"The primary goal of our program is permanency," said Kate Hacker, Catholic Charities of Buffalo's preventive services coordinator who runs its Kinship Caregiver Program. "You don't want a child to go into foster care because Grandma couldn't afford to take care of them."
Catholic Charities' program is one of Kinship Navigator's 21 regional programs. It has a website full of information and a toll-free "warm line" that handles calls during business hours.
Last year, Catholic Charities had almost 200 cases covering about 600 caregivers. Mid Erie Counseling and Treatment Grandparents Advocacy Program is the area's other regional program. It provides free legal assistance to income-eligible caregivers seeking custody, through a partnership with Neighborhood Legal Services in Family Court.
Gateway Longview, Child and Family Services and other smaller programs also provide such services as respite care, tutoring and transportation assistance.
Mary Soda was inquiring about general counseling services for Carlito at Catholic Charities when she was directed to its kinship program and paired with a caseworker to get help.
When a "nonparent" grant application is submitted, the first step is to track the biological parents for child support. If the parents aren't able to make payments, the agency will then approve the grant. And if the child support isn't enough, a portion of the "nonparent" benefit is awarded as a supplement.
In Soda's case, Carlito receives money from his father and a partial grant. She says if it weren't for the kinship program and social services' efforts, the child support order wouldn't have gone into effect. She is out of work; her husband, Bill, is an electrician. Soda's daughter doesn't pay child support.
Carlito attends Bishop Timon and St. Jude High School.
Soda said the grant helps cover expenses.
"It's very helpful," she said. "We use it for groceries, bills, his clothes, you name it. We count on that money."
Dankert said the grants do have some restrictions. Caregivers are not eligible if the children receive Social Security survivor's benefits or Social Security Disability, or if the biological parent also lives in the home.
She said even if they aren't eligible for the grant, kinship households should take advantage of community programs to address parenting, emotional and psychological needs.
"It's a big lift when you've already raised your children to have to start all over again," she said.
For the past five years, Soda has attended Catholic Charities' Kinship Caregiver Program's support group.
"I've learned so much," she said. "I didn't know that the fees for the SAT are waived for grandparents raising their grandchildren. I also learned how to sign onto Facebook to see what's he's doing. And I made friends in the group. We get together and share ideas and support each other."
For Cora Long, the assistance from the Catholic Charities program eased her difficult overnight transition from a Tennessee grandmother to a kinship caregiver for her grandchildren in Buffalo. Long's daughter, a single mother of five, died unexpectedly in November 2009. Long was simultaneously stricken with grief and overwhelmed with the responsibility of caring for her grandchildren.
But the program came to her aid, helping her apply for Social Security benefits for her grandchildren and housing help. Christmas was a month after Long's daughter died; the program provided gifts for the children, she said.
"I was so distraught and still in shock from my daughter's passing," said Long, 56. "At that time I didn't know what I would do. I wasn't prepared for the situation.
Also, Long doesn't drive, but her caseworker, Jackie Jackson, has driven her to important appointments, including a recent one to a cardiologist for Long's 14-year-old granddaughter.
>Easing the transition
There are a few common ways kinship houses happen: A parent dies or is jailed, or uses illegal drugs or abuses alcohol. Or they may be on military deployment. In Soda's case, her daughter was a teenage mother and wasn't ready for parenthood.
"She didn't have a her act together," Soda said. "She just wasn't settled to raise a child."
Separation from parents can be traumatic for youngsters, but studies show kinship care can be better for children than foster care.
"It is our mandate to keep the child with family," Dankert said. "Children do better in familiar care than in strange care."
The Sodas said the Catholic Charities guidance has given them the chance to enjoy their grandson.
"It's been a joy having him here, especially when he was young and cuddly," said Bill Soda. "Carlito has given me a chance to be a dad, and I love it."
Mary Soda's second round of parenting has been even more meaningful, she said, and keeps her up on trends. Soda said Carlito, an aspiring rapper who goes by "Lito," has her listening, and even embracing hip-hop music.
"I like Eminem, and some Lil Wayne, just a little bit," she admitted.
Carlito said he is his grateful to his grandparents for being there.
"They've made me the good boy that I am today," he said. "They've always kept me busy and put me in a lot of different activities. And I've never been in any trouble."