Child advocates have been seeking better support for relatives and family friends who help foster children, and Arizona lawmakers now have the chance to answer that plea with two Senate bills up for hearings later this week.

The grandparents, neighbors, aunts and uncles tasked with caring for a child unexpectedly are not well supported, said Dana Naimark, president of the state’s Children’s Action Alliance. Many don’t hear about the financial support they could get, or find they have to do the research themselves and then wait after filling out an application.

If they chose to become licensed foster parents, that doesn’t happen quickly.

“It takes a couple months at least to become licensed, so even the families that get licensed right away will get two months of assistance from the beginning automatically,” said Julie Treinen, program director of Kinship Support Services for Arizona’s Children Association, about one of the proposed changes.

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, has to do with dollars from the federal program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, which is a time-limited program to help parents and families in need become self-sufficient.

Under SB 1306, the TANF funding would become automatic for kinship providers through the state’s Department of Child Safety. Currently about 33 percent of the children who are eligible receive the funding, which starts at about $164 for the first child and declines after that.

About $5 million of the state’s share of TANF would need to be allocated directly to DCS under this bill in order for kinship providers to get the money right away.

The other measure, SB 1391 sponsored by Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, would raise the stipend kinship providers receive from $75 per month to $250 per month. About 55 percent of the kids eligible receive the money right now.

Naimark said they are optimistic since both bills are getting hearings Wednesday morning in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

“I think the Grandparent Ambassadors really feel like the lawmakers are paying attention, and they are really encouraged to see these bills getting a hearing,” she said, referring to a group that’s been active in trying to bring about these changes.

Treinen’s organization helps about 700 kinship caregivers each year and about half, those that involve a DCS case, are called formal placements. Families that take in a relative or friend’s child without DCS involvement are called informal kinship providers and are not eligible for the stipend or the TANF funds.

Darcy Mentone’s case involved DCS, but she says no one told her about the money she could receive after she took in one of her son’s friends and then his friend’s four siblings.

At first, she thought she’d only have the children a few days, but they ended up staying about five months.

As a full-time employee with the Vail Unified School District, Mentone found herself overwhelmed trying to get five children to counseling sessions, caseworker meetings and teacher conferences. “It immediately became a very full-time job,” said Mentone.

For one child she did receive a $50 clothing stipend and then less than that for the other children. It was nowhere near enough to cover the clothing, shoes, bedding and pillows the children needed immediately.

She said the feedback she received from DCS on financial assistance was not helpful.

“It was just incredibly difficult,” she said about trying to get help from DCS. “I was constantly calling, constantly emailing, trying desperately to get anything.”

Eventually, Mentone and her husband decided it was just too much and gave the children back to DCS.

“We were spread so thin, we kept thinking are we even able to give them what they need?” she said. “We just weren’t able to sufficiently care for those kids.”

Contact reporter Patty Machelor at pmachelor@tucson.com or 806-7754. On Twitter: @pattymachstar

Reporter

Patty covers issues pertaining to children and families as well as people living with disabilities. She previously reported on court cases, with an emphasis on juvenile court. She has worked for the Arizona Daily Star since 2001.