Wheeler: Aid unavailable for grandparents who take in grandchildren

Faith is 4 and friendly. Standing in her driveway, she opens her hand and shares the treasure of toys she has clenched inside it. But first she pushes dark hair out of her clear blue eyes and makes sure you know that her name starts with F.

Her 16-month-old sister, Emagine, is crying because she doesn't want to go inside. Once through the door, brother Aiden, 6, disappears, off to play a game. And Kearston, 2 and first cousin to the others, wants some Cheerios, a word that is nearly unintelligible but that grandma Linda Alves immediately understands.

Alves' kitchen, even with scattered cereal, is stylish, and her three-story home (if you count the unfinished attic) has a healthy green yard lined by a white picket fence. She bought the house in 2007 as her forever-after house - and now she might have to sell it.

Alves is struggling financially because of doing what she believes is the right thing: She and husband, Frank, became legal guardians to these four grandchildren - three born to their older daughter and one to their younger - after the mothers lost custody. The Alveses, also parents to a 13-year-old son, are now on a mission to get kinship guardians the same money that foster parents get.

"I've posted on all the politicians' Facebooks. I've sent them all emails, parades of phone calls," Linda Alves says. "I've called churches. I've talked to everyone who would listen to me."

It seems wrong to them that the government would pay foster families $475 a month to care for each of the three younger children and $581 a month for Aiden, if only the Alveses gave the children up. The children receive free child care and Medicaid, but the couple get little help with the $300 to $400 a week they spend on groceries and diapers.

Not to mention clothing. Aiden has one pair of shoes, and Linda Alves doesn't know how she'll buy more when he outgrows them.

"I've worked my whole life. So has my husband. And when it gets too tight, I'm left waiting in a food bank line," she says. "If you take everything away from these kids and give them to strangers, they can get shoes. So the state wants them to choose. Do you want your family, or do you want shoes?"

It's that impossible choice that drives Alves, 42, a manager at a Clayton store.

"When it started out, it was simply about me and what I wasn't getting for these kids. But I've had DSS telling me about kids coming out of homes with kin who want them but can't afford it," she says. "I've become angry about it. What about grandparents who can't advocate? The aunts and uncles out there just sucking it up?"

Just last week, thousands of grandparents from across the nation rallied in Washington to raise awareness about the number of Americans struggling to raise grandchildren - a number that has only increased since the recession. In North Carolina alone, the 2010 census found 98,493 grandparents responsible for their grandchildren.

Help from church

On Facebook, Alves started a Kinship Without Support page, and hopes to take the petition she posted there to the General Assembly in May to persuade some lawmakers to help.

But she has not limited her pleas to government bodies. "I have more churches behind me than officials. Almost every church I've contacted has said, 'Yes, how can I help?' "

Her church, Hope Church in Clayton, has volunteered to finish the family's attic, although it is hoping to get materials donated. It's a critical need because two more grandchildren might join them, Alves says.

The elder daughter, who lost and regained custody of her children several times, has a fourth child, a 2-year-old boy who remains with a foster mother because of respiratory problems. The Alveses are trying to gain custody of him, too.

And their younger daughter is pregnant again, and they anticipate maybe having to care for that child, too.

"We've gone so deep into it with the kids that if we don't take one, in 18 years, will they say, 'Why did my sister or brother get to stay and I didn't?' Why is one less worthy of fighting for than the other?"

Yes, Linda Alves says, she can hear the compassionless critics in her head, those who will offer only condemnation about six children born to two unwed daughters with only one of the fathers occasionally offering support. She stresses that she and Frank, 50, left behind careers and family in 2007 when they moved from California specifically to try to remove their younger daughter from a bad situation.

"Your children reach age 18 and decide who they want to be," she says. "I raised my children in church. I wanted better choices from them, but they decide. This is not how you picture grandparenthood. This is not what I had in mind."

And the fact remains: Aiden, Faith, Emagine and Kearston are here, part of our community. And they did nothing wrong. They are the innocents who deserve the best we can do for them.

Night terrors

Sometimes, deep at night, Alves finds herself scared. And Frank, a correctional officer at Central Prison in Raleigh, occasionally wonders whether they can continue.

"We won't give them up," Alves says determinedly. "If something doesn't happen, we'll have to sell our house. I've looked at other ones in not desirable areas.

"Where do you cut down their quality of life from? What do we have to give up to keep them? We're pretty much going to have to give up everything."