For Brooke and Jon Siddoway, the years spent watching life fall apart around their two granddaughters was agonizing.
The girls were toddlers when their mother died of a drug overdose and their father, Jon's son, spiraled more heavily into his substance abuse and criminal problems. By the time the girls were ages 3 and 4, their father faced serious criminal problems, and after years of unofficially helping to parent them, the Siddoways knew they needed to intervene.
One problem: They weren't sure what their rights were or what they could or couldn't do to protect the children.
A lot of grandparents, other relatives or close family friends are in the same predicament, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which on Wednesday called on government entities and communities to do more to support those families and also better publicize existing resources. The foundation said the number of children living with such caregivers increased 18 percent over the past decade, yet those families struggle with often limited resources to meet basic needs.
In Utah, the foundation estimated 15,000 children are in kinship care, including 553 in state-supervised kinship foster care a count that Merrill Bateman said may underestimate a tally that is several times larger.
"It's huge and it has doubled in 10 years," said Bateman, who chairs committees for the state courts and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints focused on foster and kinship care. "In most parts of Utah, there aren't resources that can help those families know what they can do."
Kinship caregivers face a range of challenges, the foundation said, when they assume parenting responsibility, whether brought on by death, child abuse or neglect, substance abuse, mental health issues, military deployment, incarceration or a parent's deportation.
Children may have emotional trauma from being separated from their parents, as well as from any abuse or neglect they experienced prior to be moved to a relatives' care. Relatives also must navigate sometimes confusing requirements to get necessary legal authority to make educational and health decisions for children. Licensing requirements for foster parents don't always apply.
Kin are more likely to be poor, single, older, less-educated and unemployed, the foundation said, creating additional financial burdens when they become guardians for children. They often aren't aware of or know how to access government support programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
"What we're more worried about is families who are becoming part of the kinship care system but are not part of the state system," said Terry Haven, Kids Count director for Voices for Utah Children. Those families "may not know what resources are available to them," she added.
The Siddoways, for example, were in limbo until someone directed them to the Grandfamilies program at Children's Service Society in Salt Lake City, which two years ago guided them through the process of getting legal guardianship of the girls, helped them set up boundaries with their father and walked them through how to explain to the children what was happening.
"I just remember being so afraid it's like not breathing for months until Grandfamilies stepped in," said Brooke Siddoway, 40, of Bluffdale. "You're desperate, you're scared. You don't know what to do for your adult child or for the children."
The foundation said barriers within the child welfare system that work against kin need to be removed and foster-home licensing requirements need to be reformed. It also called for laws and resources to bolster kinship families through stable housing, access to child health care and resources for older relatives who are caregivers. And it said the TANF-funded programs should be adapted to kinship families' needs.
Jon Siddoway, 57, would add access to legal help and respite day care to the list of supports needed by those providing kinship care.
Unlike a foster family, kin usually already have close bonds with children whose parents are unable to care for them, Bateman said. Kinship care also is less costly to the state.
Staci Ghneim, deputy director for the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, said the division recognizes the resources and licensing policies are an issue when it comes to kinship placement of children in state custody, obstacles currently under review and receiving scrutiny from lawmakers.
Kin shouldn't have to meet the same standards foster families do, she said.
Currently, there are 2,732 children in foster care in Utah; of those, 1,309 are living with foster families or in proctor care and 604 are in kinship placements. Earlier this year, the Utah Legislature approved bills that require DCFS to put more emphasis on kinship placements for children entering state custody and also made it harder to remove children from relatives' care.
The close bonds of kinship were on full display Tuesday during a press conference discussing the report as Jack and Martha Brown of Sandy spoke about becoming legal guardians for grandsons Jordan, 10, and Austin, 9, who are 16 months apart in age and cuddled up to their grandparents during a press conference. The couple, both 74 and in good health, had been involved with the boys since their birth and two years ago became their legal guardians after the boys' mother became unable to parent them because of severe clinical depression.
The Browns were alarmed by what was happening to the boys but, until discovering the Grandfamilies program, thought there was little they could do other than "stand in the background, wringing your hands, and pray."
Jack Brown said the couple also feared what might happen especially to the boys if they turned for help outside the family. Because of that concern, when Jack Brown first contacted the Children's Service Society, he was reluctant to give a coordinator his contact information.
"Grandparents are caught in the middle between parents and government agencies," he said. "That is why you are so hesitant about opening up."
But with help from the program, the Browns were able to intervene and take over primary parenting for the boys, who also continue to have daily contact with their mother. Martha Brown homeschools the boys, who are both "very smart" but have been impacted emotionally by their mother's situation.
"Regardless of what causes the problem, the children are thrown in a world of insecurity and they are unprotected," Jack Brown said. "Chances of their world turning in the same direction are pretty good. ... To be selfish and go on with our lives would be the wrong thing to do."
Where to find information
The Children's Service Society offers a 10-week Grandfamilies First class, support groups, children's groups, advocacy and crisis intervention and other resources to help grandparents who are raising their grandchildren or unsure what their rights are in such situations. For more information, visit http://www.cssutah.org/grandfamilies-relatives-as-parents-a-adoption-services/grandfamilies-relatives-as-parents
"One of the most crucial things for us is that these families feel empowered and not alone," said Emily Redd, Grandfamilies coordinator.
The Utah Foster Care Foundation also offers foster parent classes that help connect kin with state resources and support. Information is available at http://www.utahfostercare.org