May is National Foster Care and Mental Health month. Whether by coincidence or done intentionally, it is appropriate that these two issues share the same month.

For years, Community Coalition’s relative caregiver members have identified the link between the stress that they and their children endure, and the need for mental health support. Relative caregivers are grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other family members who provide safe and stable homes to children who would otherwise go into the care of strangers.

Relative caregivers issues disproportionately affect South Los Angeles African American and Latino families. This area is home to 25 percent of the County’s 10,000 children in formal relative care, even though it makes up only 10 percent of the County population. Thousands more children live in informal relative care, and thousands more aren’t counted as their cases have been closed.

The decision by relative caregivers to take in their children is far more complicated than many people, even experts, realize. Unlike foster care parents who have time to prepare, relative caregivers often only have a moment’s notice to decide the fate of their children.

Their lives in every way–physically, emotionally, and financially–are turned upside down. Stable middle class families, or seniors who live on their life savings, are pushed to the brink of poverty from the new financial responsibilities. Emotionally, the children need great support as many have suffered tremendous loss or trauma before entering care.

Currently, Los Angeles County is leading a national trend to reduce the number of children in foster care. Over the last decade, the number of children in out-of-home placement in Los Angeles County has dropped dramatically–going from more than 50,000 cases in the late 1990’s to less than 20,000 today. To achieve this impressive reduction, the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has relied heavily on relative caregivers. The largest reduction in open cases has come from children exiting the child welfare system to live with relatives.

The shift towards relative caregivers is the right way to go. Numerous studies have shown that children who stay with relatives fare better than those in foster care. They are more likely to finish school, and less likely to drop out, end up homeless or in jail.

However, as DCFS continues with this historic change in child welfare policy, the department also has a responsibility to make sure it is done right. Unfortunately, as an organization that has been working with relative caregivers in South Los Angeles for the past decade, we know that DCFS has not always provided the adequate support and services that relative caregivers need–particularly in the area of mental health services.

Take the case of Amparo (whose last name is being withheld to protect the safety of her children). Three years ago Amparo received a call. Her five great nieces and nephews were living in a home with a violent and abusive stepfather. They needed a place to live or they would be split up in foster homes.

Amparo was nearing retirement, yet knew she could not turn her back on these children in their moment of need. Even though she had never been a mother, she took them in. There was a steep learning curve assuming parenting responsibilities practically overnight for five children, age 4 to 14 years old. Additionally, the children arrived in her care traumatized–quiet, withdrawn, and jumping at small noises.

Amparo knew she needed help, especially mental health support. Fortunately, Amparo found Community Coalition’s Kinship in Action program, which helped her get the support she needed. Now, three years later Amparo and her children are thriving. Her children are outgoing, playful, and bringing home A’s and B’s from school.

While Amparo was lucky to find Community Coalition, she knows that there are thousands of relative caregivers who struggle on their own. Our Relative Caregivers routinely complain about the lack of comprehensive accessible mental health services for kinship families.

What makes the situation worse is that, if Amparo’s children had been placed with a foster care agency, the services would have been readily available, provided and paid for by DCFS. If relative caregivers make up the majority of those caring for our children, why are they not receiving their share of the resources?

It seems that, if DCFS understands the need for and provides mental health support for children placed in foster care, it should be able to do the same for the children they place with relative caregivers. It also makes fiscal sense. Resources invested on the front-end of these children’s lives will pay off later, as they grow up to become healthy contributing adults.

South L.A. relative caregivers willingly step up to provide safe and stable homes for children that come through DCFS. However, DCFS should also step-up to provide these Relative Caregivers with the mental health support necessary to create healthy minds and families.

DISCLAIMER: The beliefs and viewpoints expressed in opinion pieces, letters to the editor, by columnists and/or contributing writers are not necessarily those of Our Weekly.