Sara Harper of High Point took in two great-great nieces and a greatgreat nephew with her husband, Curtis, rescuing them from what she characterizes as “some pretty bad circumstances.”
At the time, 2-month-old Kylaya, 13-month-old Dynaya, and 2-and-a-half-year-old Pierre had been taken away from their mother by the state of Pennsylvania because of neglect. On one occasion, one of the children was left strapped into a highchair and almost strangled while their mother was partying at a club, Harper says. The Harpers already had two foster children, ages 2 and 4.
“First you do the right thing,” Sara Harper said. “Then you worry about how to pay for it.”
The Harpers returned the children to their mother after three and a half years, with the expectation that they would move down to North Carolina so that they could have the benefit of a support network. What the Harpers didn’t count on is that the children’s mother would be arrested for selling drugs.
So Sara Harper drove to Pennsylvania, picked up the children and brought them back to High Point. The Harpers receive $272 per month from the Department of Social Services through the Work First program to help defray the cost of caring for the children. If the children had been taken away by the state and placed in foster care, Sara Harper says, a non-family caregiver would receive $450 to $650 per month, per child.
As a Pennsylvania resident and foster parent, Harper had been qualified to receive a state subsidy for taking care of her great niece’s three children. When she brought them down South almost four years ago, she was surprised to discover that North Carolina is among about a dozen states that provides no subsidy for kinship care, that is for grandparents or other relatives who take in the children of family members who are incarcerated or otherwise unable to provide.
Sara Harper is a woman of quiet strength. Standing before members of the Guilford County delegation to the NC General Assembly in council chambers at the High Point Municipal Building, she has her presentation organized — statistics, personal story, argument. Conveying both wisdom and compassion, she gets her point across. It’s only when she comes to a humiliating encounter with the Guilford
County Department of Social Services that she chokes up.
“When I asked Social Services if we could come under foster care in order to receive some subsidies to take care of them, they actually threatened me with the removal of the children from my home, and said that they would have to charge somebody for neglect and they would likely separate the kids,” she says. “If the first line is relatives and you step in to rescue children and then they threaten you with removal from the home….”
In an instant she is recomposed, and the hurt in her voice is replaced by steely determination.
“You know, that was not an option,” she says, “so of course we kept the children. We’ve had them there for eight years.”
The decision came at a steep cost.
“I lost my car, I lost my health insurance and I lost my credit,” Harper says, “because I had to feed those kids.”
There are 95,000 grandparents raising upwards of 200,000 children across the state of North Carolina, Harper says. That does not even include aunts, uncles and other relatives, like herself, who are providing kinship care.
Foster children are six times more likely to be dependent on the state for life, six times more likely to drop out of school, six times more likely to have mental health issues, six times more likely to end up homeless and six times more likely to be involved in drugs and gangs and back in the penal institutions, Harper says.
“Children who are raised with relatives stay connected to family,” she adds.
The lawmakers sitting at the dais are clearly moved, including members of both houses, Democrats and Republicans alike. Marcus Brandon, a Democrat who represents parts of High Point and Greensboro, says he has a bill ready to file in the House as soon as the fiscal research division works out the cost. Stan Bingham, a Senate Republican from Davidson County who represents part of High Point, says the subject interests him greatly. Gladys Robinson, a Democrat who, like Brandon, represents both High Point and Greensboro, says she would like to work with Bingham on a bill in the Senate.
“Grandparents are losing homes, and grandparents are losing their credit, and having to go back to the workforce to be able to take care of children,” Brandon says. “They’re saving us money.”
The point is not lost on Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican and former police chief.
“One connection I think is very important to the people up here — because we’re going to hear so much about the cost of keeping people in prison — $27,000 a year, or whatever the figure may be,” he says, “it’s much cheaper… get them while they’re starting off at life so we can avoid putting them in prison.”