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An iPad Each: Project ‘Re-energizes Rural School District



A national technology program offers Polk County Schools in southeast Tennessee new tools and new approaches. “We’re really changing the culture of the classroom, not just handing out devices,” says one school leader.

The biggest asset in a rural Tennessee school district’s innovative technology project may be the school system’s rural setting and eagerness to perform at the highest level. 

Polk County Schools, a small district in southeast Tennessee, is using its “rural pride” and “just rolling up our sleeves and getting it done,” said Jason Bell, the district’s supervisor of secondary curriculum and assessment. “We want to represent our district and many other rural districts in the best way possible.” 

The ambitious project is putting computer tablets into the hands of each of its 500 middle school students and their teachers. It also provides educators with training to use the technology for instruction, homework, student motivation, and other educational purposes. 

Polk County Schools is one of the few rural systems in the U.S. to be named a Verizon Innovative Learning school. The designation comes with 500 iPads, 5 gigabytes of data per month for each student and teacher in the sixth through eighth grades, and professional development support for teachers. 

Polk County (with 17,000 residents) serves approximately 2,800 students in grades K-12. The county lies southwest of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between North Carolina and Georgia. Two- thirds of the county is in the Cherokee National Forest, a fact that has a big impact on development patterns and school revenue. 

“We don’t get opportunities like this often, so we’re trying to get the most from it,” said Ryan Goodman, the system’s director of innovation. “It’s really re-energizing our district.” 

 Both men are part of state and national groups that work on rural education issues. Goodman is executive director of the Tennessee Rural Education Association (TNREA). Bell is also involved with TNREA and is the current president of the National Rural Education Association 

Bell said small districts can have a hard time getting funding for special initiatives like the technology project. 

“Rural districts are behind the eight ball in some ways because they don’t have a professional grant writer,” Bell said. “We all have a lot of other jobs beyond just writing and managing grant projects like these.” 

 The program is focused on academic achievement, technology proficiency for both students and teachers, student engagement, and exposure of students to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers. 

It’s not just the students who are getting an educational boost from the technology. Verizon is sending educational technology experts from Digital Promise to Polk County three times a year for teachers’ professional development. Teachers complete 12 technology-integration modules throughout the year. The school district also has model teachers who help lead at the middle school. In addition, Polk has established student tech teams to provide technology assistance, a strategy that not only provides support but also deepens student leadership skills. 

Teachers in the district had not worked in an environment where every student had a computing device. They have welcomed the project with open arms. Where there was hesitation, support from the district has helped overcome it.  

“Through this project, we’re really changing the culture of the classroom, not just handing out devices,” Goodman said. 

The program has included use of tools such as Google Classroom, which integrates Google Docs with classroom management tools; FlipGrid, a web-based tool that has been used for student reflection; and Socrative, an assessment tool. The school has also established daily “STEMrichment” sessions in which students progress through six-week rotations of STEM activities such as coding, environmental science, Sphero robotics, and career studies. 

Student Devin Spurling reports that he and others have used the iPads to do research, view videos that help with math, and use online textbooks at home. Spurling also said that he likes to use the tablet to listen to music while he studies because it helps him concentrate. The iPads also help make writing easier and eliminate paper, he said. 

The project is not without its challenges. Like many rural districts, Polk has issues with connectivity. Only the perimeter of the county lies outside the National Forest. Some areas have no cell service. Students are learning to adapt to this by downloading content before they get home or accessing the Internet at a friend’s home or via other connections. The district has also explored other ways to expand connectivity or to make use of applications that don’t require a constant connection. 

“Rural connectivity is a big issue,” Bell said. “And economic development is tied to this.” 

As a result of this program, some students who previously had no Internet connectivity at home now have access. 

Overall, the project has been a big success, benefitting not only students but their whole families, Goodman said. 

“Our ultimate goal is for our kids to be successful after high school,” he said. “And this project has been a wonderful step toward that.” 

This article was originally published by Daily Yonder.

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ARC Summit: Appalachian Economies Need Workforces Prepared for the Future



Mississippi is the manufacturing anchor of Appalachia. At least, that’s how Tim Thomas sees it.

Thomas is the federal co-chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, the government agency that oversees economic development for the region. This year, the commission held its annual summit in Tupelo, Mississippi, known for being the birthplace of Elvis Presley and at one time, one of the poorest cities in the poorest state in the nation. But Thomas said Mississippi is changing.

“Mississippi made some great strides…relative to manufacturing, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries,” Thomas said, “so workforce supply for them is key.”

Tupelo, Mississippi. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

It’s part of the reason the ARC chose to hold its summit in one of the southernmost states in the region this year– the changing face of its manufacturing industry and the state’s focus on developing and training a workforce to support it.

Mississippi has emphasized vocational training, as well as the creation of high-tech hubs and collaborative worker training programs with companies like Toyota, but depending on the part of Appalachia you’re in, workforce development and workforce training might mean different things.

Central Appalachia, for example, has been left with a significant number of workers trained for an industry that has faded away rapidly over the past decade.

According to a 2017 study by Downstream Strategies, presented during the “Planning for Mine Land Reclamation” panel at the summit, 1.6 percent of West Virginia’s total workforce was lost due to the decline of mining jobs between the fourth quarters of 2011 and 2014. Kentucky lost 0.6 percent of its workforce during that same period.

So, instead of training workers to keep up with the technological advances of the industry they’re already in, coalfield states have to work to retrain workers to enter a new field.

That has been one of Thomas’ priorities since being sworn in as federal co-chair in April– reviving coal economies by helping them move beyond mining operations and addressing such issues as distribution and supply chains there.

According to Thomas, the downturn of the coal industry and its impact is far broader than often recognized. He sees its impact in transportation, both on land and on the water, and in the manufacturing of heavy equipment.

“We are seeing some efforts for retraining from mining,” Thomas said, adding some of those efforts have been promising. Among them, coding and other high-tech skills being taught to the former coal miners of the region.

“That is going to be the key to further diversify the coal regions themselves, to get some other entities in place to provide employment, in addition to [those] directly tied to the mining industry,” he added.

Thomas laid out two additional priorities for Appalachian governors at last weeks summit. The governors of all 13 states serve as co-chairs of the ARC alongside him.

Those priorities also have links to workforce development– strengthening and supporting the tradition of Appalachian entrepreneurship and combating the opioid epidemic.

Substance abuse in the region has contributed to the greater suppression of local economies by decimating the workforces in communities and creating the danger of significant public health threats, like outbreaks of HIV or Hepatitis C due to the sharing of needles for intravenous drug use.

But the problem goes beyond just health impacts. In many cases individuals who struggled with substance abuse disorders can still find themselves unable to return to the job market because of a criminal record.

Thomas declared readiness to devote co-chair funds to address these problems. He said Appalachia will need to embrace some non-traditional candidates, including those recovering from substance abuse disorders and nonviolent drug offenders.

“We cannot have a population who wants a career and a job overwhelmed by opioid abuse. We cannot,” echoed Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant.

Thomas also signaled the ARC’s intention to start reviewing its Power Initiative program, which was created three years ago. The federal grant program targets funding for economic diversification to communities impacted by the decline of the coal industry to invest in workforce development, create new jobs and attract new sources of investment. It is one of the ARC’s most sought after grant programs.

Thomas said the agency needs to reassess the program to assure they are not over-investing in some communities and underinvesting in others.

“Innovation” Remains the Key Word for the Region

So, what industries could be the key to a prosperous future in Appalachia? Again, it depends on what part of the region you consider, but a number of them were shared at the ARC Summit.

Nathan Hall with West Virginia’s Sprouting Farms suggested that the most promising course for the reclaimed land of Central Appalachia’s abandoned mine sites is reforestation, sustainable agriculture and agroforestry.

Conference attendees were required to fill out these forms to select panels and breakout sessions to attend. Photo: Jan Pytalski/100 Days in Appalachia

According to Hall, the cultivation of tree fruits (paw paws, apples), berries (blackberries, raspberries), nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts) and herbs on these sites in the region could potentially challenge such major producing states as California.

Gov. Bryant sees the future of Mississippi among the stars, leading in aerospace technologies and being at the forefront of modern manufacturing, robotics, automation and advances in healthcare services.

Entrepreneurs like Marsha G. Folsom believe new industrial crops could also change the face of the region. Folsom is the co-founder of Resource Fiber, an Alabama company that is working to expand the bamboo manufacturing industry in the state.

Folsom has plans to plant up to 200,000 acres of industrial bamboo by 2020 and believes it could be planted as far north as West Virginia. According to Folsom, bamboo has both economic and environmental benefits. It is proven to absorb more carbon dioxide, while producing up to 35 percent more oxygen than other plants, she said, and is a low maintenance and renewable resource that, according to the company, produces 20 times more fiber than regular lumber.

Ohio University is producing paint pigment out of acid mine drainage, while cleaning the contaminated water.

While many of the conference presenters were realistic about the challenges that face Appalachia and the amount of time it will likely take to overcome them, the overarching message was that economic development in the region must be tied to industries and technologies of the future and not those of the past and Appalachia states must prioritize training a workforce for those industries.

That is certainly Mississippi’s goal, according to Gov. Bryant.

“Man will go to Mars and come home safely one day,” he said of his state’s future, “but will have to pass through Mississippi first.”

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West Virginia’s ‘Bad News Bears’: Chico’s Bail Bonds More a Social Club Than Softball Team



It’s an early August evening on Libertore Field at White Park in Morgantown. The orange prison jumpsuit jerseys of Chico’s Bail Bonds are impossible to miss — and so is our play. But, that’s not necessarily a compliment.

On this evening, the team loses in typical Chico fashion.

The team name, of course, comes from the 1976 film The Bad News Bears, in which a down-and-out and cheap beer-swigging Walter Matthau coaches a group of rag-tag Little Leaguers and tries to whip them into shape.

Morgantown’s Chico’s aren’t too far off from their fictitious counterparts.

On this night, there are flashes of defensive greatness in the outfield from Chico veteran Sean Kelley and rookie Dave Lawson. A few Chico batters turn infield errors into a few runs, thanks to some heads-up baserunning.

We hold our own against an outmatched and much younger rival, Gene’s Beer Garden, only to crumble when we needed to come through.

But all isn’t lost, as it never is with Chico’s. The night is still young. Win or lose, the team had yet to get to the best part of the Chico’s game-night experience.

Chico’s part-time catcher Eric Ramón strides effortlessly towards first base. The opposing team was likely napping on the field. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Becoming a Chico

I found myself a part of this group of gentleman misfits somewhat by chance, but looking back on it all, it makes perfect sense.

It was a Wednesday night in late winter or early spring of 2017, and I had popped into 123 Pleasant Street after a long day at work. I sat down, looking for some sort of reprieve from the heaviness that can be my job. I stopped in to catch up with my friend, Tyler Grady.

“You said, ‘Hey dude, is there a softball team around here or anything?’ And I don’t remember if I even said anything other than, ‘Come with me — follow me right now,’” recalled Grady, a Morgantown musician, car salesman, entrepreneur and a bartender at 123 Pleasant Street.

Chico’s part-time first baseman and the author of this article swings mightily at a pitch on June 16, 2017. His arms do not normally appear this muscular — although, they do in this photo because of pure grit, determination and zen-like focus. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“We walked around the bar and I took you downstairs to the lower bar that was not open at the time. I stood up on the liquor shelf, I climbed up and I got down our trophy that was given to us — the Olivia Newton-John trophy, our 0-and-23 trophy. And I was like, ‘The greatest softball team of all time is here,’ ” Grady, who plays right field, remembers.

The Olivia Newton-John trophy is a reference to Tommy John surgery — a procedure baseball pitchers undergo after tearing a tendon in the elbow of their throwing arm. Any baseball fan surely would get the joke.

I immediately understood the sense of humor that informed Chico’s. I could also tell I didn’t necessarily have to be good — this was about goofing off and having fun.

But Chico’s is an institution — with a history far longer than my two-season career platooning at first base.

Among the many stories of Chico’s lore include a player being picked up from jail to make a game, a player buying an orange Miata and getting a vanity license plate with ‘CHICO84’ and strange nicknames like ‘Meatball.’

A Staple of Morgantown Softball

With just one season under their belt as the Nyabinghi Dance Hall, the team took on the Chico-moniker 20 years ago — in 1998 — the same year the bar took on the name of its address, 123 Pleasant Street.

Morgantown native Louis “LJ” Giuliani took over ownership of the bar and sponsorship of Chico’s. He says Chico’s immediately embodied the open-minded identity of 123.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re white or black, straight or gay, or whatever. It’s all kinds that take the field when Chico’s takes the field,” Giuliani said, noting that 123 held the same values from the beginning.

Chico’s utility player Jon Vehse, who works in construction and other odd jobs, remembers the early days of 123 Pleasant Street the same way.

“This bar — especially when it started — it was the bar for everybody that didn’t have a bar. Everybody got along. You know, it was the place for everybody that didn’t have a place. In a lot of ways, Chico’s is kind of like that,” Vehse said.

Chico’s rookie right fielder Dave Lawson rounds first base during a June 6, 2018 game against Davis Cabinetry. The game proved to be the only outright win for Chico’s during their 2018 campaign. His dreadlock-friendly hats and visors are known on the team as a “helmet.” Photo: West Virginia Public Broadcasting

After 20 years, many Chico’s have come and gone from the team and from Morgantown. But even those who have moved on still stay connected to the team and look back on the early days with fondness.

“It was probably, really, to do something healthier besides sitting in the dark bar. I think to go out and do something that was more participatory and less spectator-driven — because, we all sat around and watch baseball together at that time. So, it was nice for us to go out and do something [and] get out in the sun and see the day together,” said Greg Leatherman, a journalist now living in Florida who was around when the team began.

Morgantown’s Music Scene and 123 Pleasant Street

Giuliani, now retired from the softball field, says Chico’s was always rooted in Morgantown’s music and art scene.

“A lot of the players that they grabbed on to just happened to be musicians. Brian Porterfield, Tom Batchelor, you’ve got Jeff Goodwin who is a musician. He’s playing on the team now,” said Giuliani, recalling some of the players who have exercised their musical talents from the stage at 123 and other local venues.

Softball wasn’t their first talent — nor their second, third or fourth, Giuliani said with a laugh.

Top photos: Tom Batchelor is well known around the region for his work with rock and reggae groups like Rasta Rafiki and The Tom Batchelor Band, as well as his time as a Chico. Bottom: Jeffrey Goodwin has been a part of punk and metal bands such as Law Biting Citizens and Ghost Road. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“It was a way to bring like-minded folks [together] that liked talking about music or art or how many shots of Jameson they had. It was based more on like-mindedness,” he explained.

Following each Chico’s game, as it has been since the beginning, the Bonders gather at 123 for cheap beers like Black Label and Pabst Blue Ribbon — and, as Giuliani mentioned, celebratory shots of Jameson.

For Vehse and other Chico’s, the post-game celebration is the perfect cap — with seemingly disparate people milling about, discussing music, sports, politics and sharing stories of life’s misadventures.

“More often than not, it is the highlight of the evening. But there’s there’s just a certain camaraderie. I think there’s a genuine affection between people,” he said.

Among Chico’s, Vehse is known for his love of curating the music from the jukebox in the lower bar.

“From Beethoven to Bob Wills, from the Rolling Stones to Prince Far I. There’s everything on that jukebox. It is an eclectic evening. It is awesome,” Vehse said of the musical selections.

Chico’s shortstop Jim Antonini (center) and loyal fans hoist a shot of Jameson at 123 Pleasant Street during a post-season party to celebrate a successful 3-25 season. With an expanded roster in 2018, it’s possible the Bonders broke a single-season record for most fluid ounces of alcohol consumed. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Creating the Chico Mythology: Game Summaries Recap the Misery

But, even after a few drinks at 123, a Chico’s game night isn’t over until it’s been recapped and shared on the team’s Facebook group.

Part comedy, part mythology, the game write-ups exaggeratedly highlight the ups-and-downs over an always hard-fought seven innings. If Chico’s doesn’t get clobbered into a 10 or 15-run mercy rule before getting through all 7 innings, that is.

“There’s three of us that have kind of done this and that’s myself, David Forman and Jim Antonini,” Greg Leatherman said. “And, basically, it is sort of like the literary connection to Chico’s softball team — is that we’ve always captured the games win, lose or draw and written up how the game went — in both a serious, professional, sort of sportscaster way but also with a lot of humor.”

Shortstop, team manager, Morgantown native and occupational health science researcher Jim Antonini has taken over the write-ups in recent years.

“It’s the same story and it’s gotten harder to write them — because, we continue to lose. There’s only so many ways you could describe a loss and drinking beer after a softball game,” Antonini explained.

If you were at any given game, you would know what is and isn’t absolutely true. If you weren’t, well, that’s left to your own imagination to decide.

A commemorative Jeff Ryan bobble head sits on the liquor shelf at 123 Pleasant Street. Catcher Eric Ramon gifted Ryan with his bobble-head likeness on Jeff Ryan Bobble Head Night at BOPARC on August 9, 2018. Photo: Jesse Wright/ West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Here’s one of Antonini’s write-ups from a game back in 2011:

The clock struck midnight. Down 19-18 in the last inning with two outs and two Bonders on, hot-hitting Ethan Wells hit deep, majestic drive to center field, bringing the roaring Chico followers to their feet. To the Bonders’ dismay, the Colasonte’s left center fielder dashed out of the darkness and fog of the thick, hazy summer night and made a diving, stabbing, tumbling, catch — ripping the hearts out of the Chico followers and team members.

In disbelief, first baseman Leatherman retreated to his car and wept — not about the loss, but about the pride he felt for his fellow Bondsman.

On this night, Chico’s were everything they had not been this forgettable season: Daring, hustling, bold, youthful. Not wanting to go home, six or seven Chico’s milled aimlessly around the closing 123 bar at 3 a.m.

An exhausted and worn down Vehse stood over the darkened jukebox — with the power long shut off after last call — still trying to make selections…just wanting to hear Peggy Lee sing “Is That All There Is” one more time.

Another Losing Record, But No Giving Up

Chico’s finished their 2018 campaign with a record of 3 wins and 25 losses. Two of those wins came as a result of a no-show forfeit from the opposing team, while the third came on a gloriously executed 7 innings against Davis Cabinetry.

Such a pathetic record should make anyone reconsider their motivations to keep playing softball. But, if you can’t tell, Chico’s isn’t about winning. Antonini says no matter what happens over the course of a season, it’s hard to imagine hanging it up.

Chico’s Bail Bonds poses for a team photo on June 16, 2018, following a win against Davis Cabinetry. The game served as the team’s only outright win of the 2018 season. Photo: Jesse Wright/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

“I think every year there’s a point in the year — probably after you’ve played 18, 20 games and it’s like ‘Why are we doing this?’ We come out and sometimes we really get humiliated,” Antonini said. “But, then, the game ends and then you get together and everybody has a few beers and then it’s it doesn’t seem that bad. It’s a pretty good way to spend a night.”

Giuliani, despite having not played in recent years, feels the same.

“Chico’s is kind of a state of mind in the sense that we’re not here to judge, we’re here to support and we’re here to spend time with each other. And that’s the bottom line. We’re a softball team that’s more of a social club than an actual softball team,” Giuliani said.

So, if you ever find yourself around 123 Pleasant Street surrounded by orange softball shirts, you’ll know you’re hanging out with the Chico’s. Buy a few of them a drink and strike up a conversation. After all, we assuredly just got beat.

This story is featured on an upcoming episode of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s podcast ​Inside Appalachia focused on the impact of baseball throughout the region. It was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting

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Grandma Underground: The 80,000 Kids in Kin Care



In the wake of the opioid crisis, kinship and foster care systems in Kentucky have been stretched to the limit, with the number of children in the homes of relatives or close family friends rising by over 50 percent. It is not clear how elderly kin will afford to care for these children.

Over the past two years, Norma Hatfield has collected stories: One grandmother, living on a $700 per month disability check, who woke up to the state delivering six kids to her doorstep in the middle of the night. Another single grandmother who found out the night of her grandson’s birth that she would be parenting the infant, born with neonatal abstinence syndrome. She had to quit her job. She closed off every room in her house but one, because she could not afford to heat them.

Hatfield is a kinship caregiver. She has permanent custody of her granddaughter and another unrelated child. She took them in after the adults in the mother’s house were arrested for drug use. Looking for assistance, Hatfield went to support groups for kinship caregivers. There, she met a grandmother who was selling her own clothes on Facebook to try to raise money to buy school clothes for her 8-year-old granddaughter, whom she was caring for. 

“She had to quit her job to care for all five children; she went from a two-income home with two people to a one-income home with seven people,” Hatfield said in an interview with Rewire.News. “That’s when I started paying attention to what was going on around me.”

To support other kin caregivers like herself, Hatfield has become an organizer and advocate, lobbying the legislature and the governor in her home state, Kentucky, over the past two years. A reporter dubbed her statewide organizing the “Grandma Underground.” The name stuck.

In the wake of the opioid crisis, kinship and foster care systems in Kentucky have been stressed to their limits. Between 2013 and 2017, the number of Kentucky children in kinship care, children who live with and are cared for by relatives or close family friends instead of their parents, rose by over 50 percent.

According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data center, 8 percent of children in Kentucky, more than 80,000 kids, are in some form of kinship care—the highest percentage in the United States; neighboring Appalachian states West Virginia and Ohio each have 5% of children in kin care. At least 12,000 Kentucky children are in kin care because the state removed them from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or parental incarceration. Despite the increasing prevalence of this kind of care, Kentucky lacks the resources to meet the needs of kin caregivers.

Families Foot the Bill

Placing children with relatives instead of foster parents who are strangers to them is often the least traumatic option for children who end up in custody of the state; it gives children a semblance of familiarity. In an interview with Rewire.News, Wendy Welch, who conducted dozens of interviews with former foster kids, foster parents, and social workers across Central Appalachia for her book Fall or Fly: The Strangely Hopeful Story of Adoption and Foster Care in Appalachia, explained kinship care’s role in lessening the trauma for children whose parents get arrested: “Harm reduction would be calling grandma as soon as the [police] raid is over and saying, ‘We have your grandchildren in the backseat of a police car. We would very much like to bring them to your house instead of the foster care system.’”

While better for children’s well-being, immediately placing them in relatives’ homes, rather than processing them through the foster system first, is one of the ways the state denies funds to caregivers.

This past July, a comprehensive foster and adoption reform law went into effect in Kentucky. Thanks partly to advocacy efforts by Hatfield and others, the legislature added $4.9 million to the budget over two years to a fund called kinship care, designed to support relatives caring for children who have been removed from their homes.

There are two separate programs for caregivers who take in children related to them: kinship guardianship assistance and relative foster care payments. Kentucky has neglected both during the last four years of the state’s meteoric rise in child placements with relatives. Now, there is money in the new kinship care fund—but state officials announced yesterday that only kin fostering children on a temporary basis will receive it.

Kinship guardianship assistance was formerly a $300 per child per month payment to low-income caregivers who had gained permanent custody—adoption or assumption of legal guardianship—of related children. But in April 2013, the state ended enrollment in that program and removed recipients whose eligibility temporarily lapsed, due to such issues as late filing of renewals. 

After that, “it was next to impossible for the elderly to care for kids on their fixed incomes,” wrote Anna Houston, director of the Family Resource Center for the Danville, Kentucky, Independent School District, in an email to Rewire.News.

Houston has run a support group for relative caregivers since 2010. Newer members in Houston’s support group who have sought financial help from the kinship guardianship assistance program since passage of the legislative reforms have been either rejected or deferred. Currently, only around 5,000 families receive these kinship guardianship payments, down from more than 11,000 in 2013, according Shannon Moody, policy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, in an interview with Rewire.News.

Hatfield recalled a woman who was the guardian of two grandchildren; when social workers called about a third, the child had to be sent to foster care because the grandmother could not afford to care for all three children herself. “If she had received that additional per diem of kinship [guardianship assistance] … all those children would be in her home.”

Relative foster caregivers are in a different position. When children are taken in by the state, social workers try to find relatives to care for them instead of sending them to nonrelative foster care. Until an October 2017 federal court decision, Kentucky did not provide these relatives with the support payments nonrelative foster caregivers receive.

In 2014, Richard Dawahare, an attorney in Kentucky, sued the state of Kentucky for refusing to grant foster care maintenance payments, around $750 per month per child, to relatives who take in children on a non-permanent basis. In October 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit agreed with Dawahare’s argument. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by the state, some caregivers began getting payments, but many still aren’t, Dawahare says. Dawahare filed another lawsuit three months ago to challenge this practice.

The state is now obligated under court order to reimburse relative foster caregivers. Kentucky’s Department of Community Based Services had already warned that the bulk of the $4.9 million put into kinship care could go to the court-ordered payments for these short-term, relative foster parents. Funds will not be available for guardianship assistance anytime soon for the low-income, elderly relatives who have already established permanent custody of children.

Hatfield, organizer of the Grandma Underground, is frustrated by this decision by the state, which speaks to the dearth of resources to deal with the influx of children who need care—and caregivers who need help. “This lawsuit was already in the works for a few years. The Cabinet should have been prepared for this … Even the money that they allocated to kinship care wasn’t a lot.”

Relatives who take in children do become eligible for the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program (TANF), but that only amounts to $186 per month, said Moody, policy director of Kentucky Youth Advocates. They also become eligible for child care assistance for 12 months, and a one-time $350 per child placement support benefit—but many kin caregivers do not receive it because they are not made aware of it in time.

“Aside from that,” Moody said, “there’s not a whole lot else out there for relative caregivers right now.”

Confronting stereotypes

Many foster parents and kin caregivers in Appalachia feel uncomfortable talking about needing more resources. They feel keenly the stigma of caring for the children of relatives or friends involved with drugs, and the stereotype that caregivers abuse the system for personal financial gain.

Welch, the author of Fall or Fly, pointed out the implicit judgment many people make about low-income foster and kin caregivers: “Grandmothers who give their children back [to the state] because they can’t afford to keep but one of them are the subjects of [people’s] judgment, not the system that says you can only have this much money,” she said. “The public doesn’t go after the system; they go after the grandma.”

“People who have to have the money to foster or provide kin care aren’t necessarily in it for the money,” Welch said. “What the public doesn’t know are the thousands of points of light that some of these people are.” Kin caregivers and foster parents clothe, feed, house, educate, and provide emotional support to children who have been through extreme trauma.

W (who asked that a full name not be used for privacy reasons), a single foster parent in eastern Kentucky who works full time, wrote in a statement to Rewire.News that their stipend has been critical to covering their child’s essential needs like diapers and child care. “There’s a disconnect in our society when we talk about taking care of young ones and how we talk about assistance. I myself am happy to pay taxes if it means they’re going to help keep a young child safe in a loving home,” W wrote.

Hatfield said, “It’s very easy for people to say, ‘Why would you pay a relative to take care of their own kin?’ [But] that money is for the child. This is about neglected and abused kids.”

She noted that when she started collecting stories from kin caregivers, many relatives “were afraid to say much publicly,” to avoid association with drugs or with being in dire need. In the past two years, as the opioid crisis has increased the need for kin care even more, caregivers have started opening up. At Kentucky’s legislative session, Hatfield hand delivered a petition of over 6,000 stories and names of kinship caregivers to every state senator. “We united here in Kentucky for the children,” she wrote.

This story was originally published by Rewire.News.

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