Jazilyn Wells will turn 6 years old soon. She’s bright-eyed, funny, loving and has lived with her great-aunt, Stephanie Wells, for the majority of her young life.
Wells, a single parent who raised two grown children, is the legal guardian who she now calls “Mom.”
When Wells leaves for work as a social services program consultant for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, Jazilyn goes to daycare in Wendell before and after attending kindergarten at Carver Elementary School.
The Department of Social Services was involved with Jazilyn since she was nine months old. Wells took her in when she was 18 months old and Jazilyn has lived with her since then.
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“I thought it was going to be temporary,” Wells said. “She’s related, and I didn’t want to see her go into a foster care home. I wanted to give her a steady place to live.”
On January 1, 2015, Wells has an emotional decision to make. She will lose the subsidy for childcare that she, along with other grandparents and relatives who are standing in as legal guardians, are receiving monthly.
Since she can no longer afford child care, she doesn’t know whether she will be able to change her work schedule and she can’t quit her job. If desperate, she may have to consider sending Jazilyn back to foster care.
“She is like the daughter I never had,” she said, her voice trailing off. “It’s really tough.”
During the 2014 budget session, the General Assembly voted to tie childcare subsidies for poor families to the federal poverty level.Families with children younger than 6 qualify for subsidies if they make less than twice the federal poverty level, and those with children 6 to 12 years old have to make less than 133 percent of the federal poverty level – $31,720 for a family of four.
The changes now require a co-pay equal to 10 percent of the family’s monthly income regardless of family size.
The second part of these changes, which begin with the New Year, re-defines those who are eligible for care.
Relative caretakers included
Under the new definition, the income of stepparents and nonparent relative caretakers – including the caretaker’s spouse – are considered for eligibility if the child’s parents do not live in the home.
For Wells, that means she will jump from receiving fully-funded child care to no funding at all. She received a letter dated Dec. 2 that said her eligibility and payment to her daycare provider would cease at the end of the month.
Kim Bunn is the human services senior practitioner at East Wake Regional Center and often helps with placing foster children in relatives’ care. She has received many calls from caretakers who are desperate for solutions.
“Foster care rights are so much higher than relative care rights,” she said. “What we were trying to do was keep a few perks for them. Now they’re all gone.”
Currently, nonparent relatives who are caring for foster children also receive a monthly payment and Medicaid. For one child, that amount is $181 and raises in small increments for additional children. Bunn pointed out that a relative could be raising nine children and only receive $406 in monthly payments.
“Daycare was just essential,” she said. “I think it’s much, much cheaper for a child to go live with a relative, plus they are staying with family. But a lot of times this may not be the case any more because of a lack of funds.”
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Scotland County Democrat who heads up the Legislative Black Caucus, has denounced these changes. He said it puts an undue burden on family members who desire to take responsibility for relatives, but don’t have the necessary resources.
“You’re creating more poverty all over again,” he said. “Children shouldn’t struggle. We should do everything we can to ensure that they have a happy life.”
Sen. Dan Blue and Rep. Darren Jackson represent Wells. Attempts to reach Blue were unsuccessful. Jackson, who voted against the budget, said that he was disappointed in the policy.
“We should be keeping families in tact to the extent that we can,” he said. “Being a family member shouldn’t disqualify them... they’re doing everyone a service.”
Daycares at stake
Bunn said that three childcare centers in Eastern Wake County alone have closed within the last year. She sees the problem only getting worse. As she advises families before opening a case, she ensures that they understand that daycare is now their bill – one that averages $130 per week or more.
Lorraine Dixon runs ABC Land, a daycare with two locations in Wendell. She’s concerned for the children, their relatives and the daycare’s survivability.
Although she wasn’t significantly impacted by the October 1 changes, within two weeks of the wave of December letters, she had two families withdraw their care.
“We will lose income that we have,” she said. “A single parent certainly, when taking responsibility to take child out of system and into their home, shouldn’t be responsible for the expense of the child.”
Wells fears for the children in these situations.
“A five-year-old is too young to become a latchkey kid,” she said.