With six grandchildren ages 1 through 14 to raise, Vicki and Dickie Dever do all they can to get by.

Living on fixed incomes, the retired couple collect eggs from their chickens and slaughter cows and pigs raised on their 13-acre Bullitt County homestead to stock three deep freezers with meat. Dickie Dever grows vegetables in a big garden.

But with virtually no assistance for the six children they’ve taken in at the request of state social services officials, Vicki Dever said it’s a struggle to survive. And she knows they’re among many Kentucky grandparents and other relatives raising children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect, a number rising steadily because of the opioid epidemic.

“I don’t understand how people make it,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t think we’re going to make it.”

The Devers and many others were counting on state officials to restore a program called Kinship Care after lawmakers added money for the program in the state budget that took effect July 1. Kinship Care provides relatives $300 a month per child to care for children removed from homes because of abuse or neglect but the state closed it to new applicants in 2013, citing a budget shortfall.

But it appears any relief is months away — if it’s coming at all — even though lawmakers included about $5 million in the budget to help relatives caring for children.

Kentucky’s top social services official, testifying at a legislative committee last month, said the Kinship Care money may be “consumed” by a federal court order that the state pay relatives who provide temporary foster care to children the same as it does licensed foster parents.

The court-ordered foster pay for relatives with temporary custody does not apply to the many caregivers like the Devers who have permanent custody of their grandchildren.

Elizabeth Caywood, acting commissioner of the Department for Community Based Services, told the committee she is “genuinely concerned” that the payments for temporary foster care may use up most of the money the state hoped to spend on Kinship Care.

Meanwhile, the state has no immediate plans to start Kinship payments though officials are working on a plan they hope to have ready by the end of this year, Caywood said at the June 14 meeting of the Program Review and Investigations Committee.

News that Kinship assistance won’t start anytime soon prompted sharp criticism from Kentucky Youth Advocates, an organization that has been lobbying the state to restore it. The organization says thousands of Kentucky kids are being raised by relatives, many of whom frequently call its office wondering when financial help will be available.

“Kinship givers are increasingly desperate and do not deserve a rollout that seems to have all the speed of molasses,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of the organization. “The time is long past for state leaders to step up for the Kinship families who are stepping up for kids.”

The court-ordered foster pay for relatives with temporary custody does not apply to the many caregivers like the Devers who have permanent custody of their grandchildren. And state officials are refusing foster payments to some relatives with temporary custody, based on its interpretation of the court ruling the U.S. Supreme Court left in place last year.

The state’s interpretation of who is eligible has prompted a new lawsuit by relatives and others who claim the state has wrongly denied them foster pay.

Should they prevail, that would mean an even greater cost to the state. State officials have said they are confident they are correctly following the original court order.

‘It’s tough’ Meanwhile, Caywood said the state is trying to develop “a service array” for relatives who take in children that could include financial help under a plan it hopes to develop by the end of the year.

Doug Hogan, a spokesman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said officials are conducting a statewide assessment to better determine the needs in order to devise a system to support relatives caring for children.

But the Devers say they need help now.

Vicki Dever, 59, was forced to quit a job because of a serious heart condition and receives a monthly disability check. Dickie Dever, 73, a retired farmer, draws a small Social Security check. The family also gets $384 a month in state assistance for low-income families with children.

“It’s tough,” Vicki Dever said. “I know several grandparents who had to give up their grandchildren because they couldn’t afford it. It’s heartbreaking.”

Even more frustrating, said Vicki Dever, is that her family was able to get Kinship payments for several years for three of the six grandchildren they initially took in, which meant an additional $900 a month. But the state terminated her from the program last year, claiming she was late filing her renewal application, paperwork Dever insists she sent in on time.

She appealed to state officials who refused to reinstate the payments, saying the program is closed, Dever said.

“I broke down, it upset me so bad,” Dever said. “I said, ‘You don’t understand — it doesn’t hurt us, it hurts the kids.’ That’s what I don’t understand. Why can’t they see it’s affecting the kids?”

Shelia Nolan, of Louisville, said she went to the state social services office five years ago to apply for Kinship Care after she took in her young granddaughter, only to find out the state had ended the program for new applicants that same day.

“I can’t have it because that’s the day they ended it. I’m like, why?” she said. “Why do they keep saying we can’t get this money and we’ve got these kids.”

Her granddaughter is now 12, and Nolan said she hoped the state would restore the program that would help with clothing, school supplies and other needs for the girl. It’s frustrating to be told there’s no help, she said, especially when the children would otherwise have wound up in foster care at far greater cost to the state.

Foster families get about $25 a day or around $750 a month compared to $300 a month per child for Kinship Care.

When the state closed Kinship Care to new applicants in 2013 — around the time the opioid crisis began to trigger a surge in kids in foster care — the move prompted an outcry from children’s advocates and many families in need of financial assistance.

Their concern increases as the need grows, they say.

“We have so many relatives struggling to keep kids out of state care,” Jefferson Family Court Judge Dee McDonald said. “Many have retired or are on fixed incomes. They need this help desperately.”

McDonald said she frequently must warn relatives seeking custody they will be financially responsible for the children with little or no outside help. Nonetheless, they almost always agree to take custody rather than turn the children over to foster care.

“I am thrilled that they put something in the budget,” McDonald said. “I will be more thrilled when I see something getting into the hands of these families.”

Norma Hatfield, an Elizabethtown grandmother who has organized a drive by families in support of Kinship Care, said Caywood recently told her in an email that the state currently doesn’t have enough money to resume payments.

But she said she was encouraged by the state official’s claim in the email that the state is seeking some way to help.

“I’d rather have a a good program and have folks wait a little longer,” she said. “I’m still holding out hope, but we’ll see.”

Meanwhile, Hatfield said, she continues to hear from grandparents and others anxious to know when the state plans to restore Kinship Care.

“I’ve gotten a lot of emails, text messages, Facebook posts over the last 60 days from people asking ‘Have you heard anything? I’m desperate,’ ” Hatfield said. “These people have been waiting. Their needs have not gone away.”

Coupons and credit cards

In Bullitt County, Vicki and Dickie Dever never expected to spend their retirement years raising six grandchildren.

But in 2004, state Child Protective Services officials asked them to take in an 18-day-old infant whose mother is intellectually disabled and also has been involved with drugs and domestic violence.

Over the years, five more children would follow, all in need of a home after they were removed by state officials. The youngest came to their home a year ago following a six-week hospital stay after he was born prematurely with drugs in his system.

And as the household grew, expenses have mounted.

The loss of Kinship Care last year for three of the children was a terrible blow, she said.

“It killed us,” she said. “Nine hundred dollars a month is a lot of money.”

Dever said a relative helps her by clipping coupons she uses for items such as diapers, cleaning supplies and laundry detergent, all in high demand.

“The laundry is non-stop,” she said.

The Devers drive an aging, seven-passenger van with more than 150,000 miles on it that’s too small to hold everyone.

“Our van is on its last legs,” she said. “We really need an eight-passenger van but that’s just impossible right now.”

It’s summer now, but Dever said she’s already worried about clothes and school supplies the children will need. It’s hard to replace items such as jeans or shoes as the kids grow out of them, she said.

“I’ll say, ‘Wait till I get a little extra money,’ ” she said. “Where are we going to get the extra money?”

And with six hungry children, their monthly income simply isn’t enough to buy all the groceries they need to supplement the eggs, meat and vegetables they produce at home. The family doesn’t qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps).

Dickie Dever, who does most of the cooking, said he uses a lot of ground beef from their freezer for meals.

“They love hamburgers, spaghetti and meatballs, tacos and chili,” he said.

Vicki Dever said she recently went to a food bank at a local church.

“I’ve never had to do that before,” she said. “It’s kind of embarrassing, but I did it.”

Sometimes the Devers end up paying for groceries or other necessities with credit cards, which she said adds to their debt.

“It’s probably something we’ll have till we are dead,” she said. “And we won’t have to worry about it then because we’ll be dead.”

Meanwhile, she said she and her husband hope the state finds a way to restore Kinship Care.

“We’re still looking forward someday to a little financial support,” she said. “It sure would be a blessing.”

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