Woman uses inheritance to help relative caregivers

Taking in six siblings at once wasn’t enough to daunt their great-aunt — although they’d witnessed their mother’s murder, and their father was in jail.

The real challenge came when the woman sought financial support to care for all six kids. She tried to become a licensed relative caregiver through the Department of Family Services. But having a certain number of rooms and beds for the children was a requirement. Eight hundred dollars stood between her and renting a new home that would meet the requirement, keeping her family together.

When it comes to the stress of keeping family within the family, "I’ve never had a relative tell me that it’s about the kid," remarked Ali O’Donnell, founder and executive director of Foster Kinship. The Las Vegas nonprofit provides relative caregivers with everything from diapers and Goodwill vouchers to support groups and advocacy assistance.

"It’s always about whatever system that they’re trying to deal with, whether it’s the foster care system, welfare, or the court system, the school system, or trying to get health insurance," she said. "It’s never that the kids are making their lives that much more challenging, even though obviously there is that piece to it."

That’s why O’Donnell, then a mental health counselor for kids in foster care, was moved to action when she heard the great-aunt’s story about a year and a half ago.

"I was able to gift her the money," she said. "But it was that moment when I thought, how hard can it be to just start a nonprofit and be able to do this for other people?"

O’Donnell did, in fact, learn how hard it could be. With an inheritance from a beloved aunt, she took a chance. The doors of the organization finally opened in May, and the nonprofit still awaits its 501(c)(3) status. Meanwhile, the calls for help haven’t stopped coming.

One reason, according to O’Donnell: Nevada’s failure to keep up with states such as California and Florida in addressing an issue that the census doesn’t accurately capture.

Clark County’s 2010 census showed 19,000 grandparents caring for their grandkids, said O’Donnell. But the numbers don’t reveal the many other family members who take on the responsibility for a relative’s children. And while strangers in the foster care system receive payment, kinship caregivers can’t receive financial help to care for an "instant" new household until they’ve gone through the waiting periods of bureaucracy.

That is, if they’re ever successful.

O’Donnell recalls a great-grandmother denied funds because the baby’s father, her grandson, wasn’t on the birth certificate. The hospital had made a mistake.

The difficulties aren’t limited to the underserved. O’Donnell cites the example of middle-class grandparents who have retirement income. It’s not enough to cover their grandchildren’s insurance but plenty to disqualify the kids from Nevada Check Up. With Nevada putting the brakes on child-only health insurance policies because of the Affordable Care Act, according to O’Donnell, the family lives one emergency room visit away from financial mayhem.

The only other choice for some children is to be bounced around among strangers. And when caring family members do step forward, they’re often taking on the system while slaying other dragons. Those can include shame, anger and boundary issues with the child’s biological parents, who may still be around.

Relatives often tell O’Donnell how glad they are just to have someone finally listen, she said.

For her, that role is eons away from her cushy existence as a human resources business partner at Microsoft in Seattle, before she moved to Las Vegas in 2009. Massive company layoffs made her rethink her definition of success and pointed her in the direction of the desert she loved. Once here, she juggled several jobs.

"Nothing has been as easy as I thought," she reflected, "which is good, because if I knew it was going to be hard, I wouldn’t have done anything."

For more information, visit fosterkinship.org or call 702-546-9988.

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