The child was not even technically Amy Cooper’s granddaughter. The baby had just been delivered by a woman who was already four months pregnant when she struck up a relationship with Cooper’s son, and the couple had moved into Cooper’s home.

The mother, Cooper said, was a drug addict and alcoholic. Cooper imagined the child’s life in the woman’s care, and couldn’t stand the image.

“They wrapped her in a pink blanket, and I took her home with me,” said Cooper, who now lives in Bangor. “I was bound and determined that this child was not going home with her.”

That was 20 years ago. The girl, and a boy born to the same woman a few years later, have lived in Cooper’s care ever since. They form one of the thousands of kinship families that exist throughout the state.

The number of children living in kinship families dwarfs those in foster care, but unlike foster families, kinship families receive almost no support from the state or the communities in which they live.

“They really are not a well-known group of people, and they’re increasing every month,” said Beverly Daniels, executive director of Families And Children Together, an agency that advocates for kinship families. “They’re kind of a lost group right now.”

Kinship families are most often made up of grandparents, particularly grandmothers, raising their grandchildren, although there are numerous examples of other relatives taking in children not their own.

In 2010, there were more than 5,000 children in Maine homes where grandparents were the primary caregivers, according to U.S. Census statistics. There was no parent present in about 2,600 of those homes.

By comparison, in 2011, there were 1,536 children in Maine foster care. About 300 of those children were in the care of a relative.

“We have discussions about drugs, mental health and crime. Who’s taking care of the kids?” said Jan Strout, of West Gardiner. “You know all these people that are drug addicted, in jail, or here or there? Most of them have got kids. Many, many families are willing to step up and take custody of those kids.”

EMERGENCY HELP

Strout, 69, and her husband did just that more than a decade ago when they took in their grandchildren. The children, both younger than 15 at the time, called Strout to come and get them at their mother’s house.

Strout knew her daughter did not want her to take the children away, but the children were desperate.

“They threw their coats out of the second-story window. They snuck down through the cellar and met me in the car,” Strout recalled. “I told them if I take you out of this house today, I will never be invited back. They said don’t leave us. I took them.”

Most families, including those formed by foster care or adoption, have several months to prepare for a new child, but Daniels said kinship families are often formed like Strout’s: in an emergency situation fraught with emotion. The children often have a combination of emotional and physical disabilities.

For many years, Families And Children Together had legal, social and financial programs to help kinship families navigate those waters, but the state, under the administration of Gov. John Baldacci, cut much of its funding. Daniels said there are many agencies that would help kinship families, but there is never enough money.

MORE VISIBILITY

Kinship support groups, such as Augusta Area Kinship Support, headed by Strout, recently tried to make their presence felt. Strout and 68-year-old Jan Partridge, of Belgrade Lakes, who is raising a pre-teen granddaughter, in May organized a legislative breakfast that attracted dozens of state lawmakers and officials.

“Our purpose was to raise awareness that we’re out there,” Strout said. “We’re not complaining. We’re just saying, ‘Hey! We’re out here.'”

They have been heard at the Department of Health and Human Services. Jim Martin, director of Child and Family Services since December, said his agency is putting together a request for proposals that would allow the agency to partner with a private agency to support kinship and foster families. He hopes to have a contract in place early next year.

“It’s become clear to me we’re not where we want to be in supporting kinship families and foster families across the state,” Martin said.

But as his agency spends more time responding to child abuse complaints, Martin said there is not enough time to help kinship families. That’s why he is seeking an outside agency to focus solely on their issues and those of foster families.

“We’re working with national partners to see the models and programs used in other states,” Martin said. “We’re also actively listening to staff and families to understand what they need.”

Donna Lufkin, of Gardiner, who is raising her nieces, an 8-year-old and a 9-month-old, said having someone immersed in the issues and legal process of kinship families is key.

“From moment to moment even, it will vary. With the same worker at times,” Lufkin said. “They’ll tell you one thing, and then the next time you see them they will tell you something completely different. It’s difficult at times, but you just keep doing it and get through it.”

Cooper said part of the reason answers are so elusive is that the issues faced by adoptive and foster families differ from kinship families.

“We’re not adoptive. We’re not foster,” she said. “We’re grandparents. We’re kin.”

Martin said the information his department has received from Daniels and others from kinship support groups has been instrumental in creating the request for proposals.

“They really care about the well-being of these children, and they want nothing but the best for them,” Martin said. “That passion is apparent when you talk to them and get the opportunity to hear their story.”

LEGAL BATTLES

Daniels said the biggest challenge kinship families face is financial. Many of the grandparents are living on fixed incomes or are retired and unable to earn more money. A large percentage of kinship homes are headed up by single grandmothers. Absent state support, the grandparents often band together to help each other out, hosting bake sales and other fundraisers to help other families in need. Last week, a Bangor woman was collecting items for a yard sale to go into the “pay it forward” fund for Family And Children Together.

“These grandparents are helping to support others,” Daniels said. “They’re a group to be reckoned with. These grammies are not going to stop.”

Other challenges revolve around the grandparents’ inability to protect their grandchildren from their parents. There are stories of legal battles for guardianship and dealing with the aftermath of the state’s push to reunite the children with their biological parents.

“Each one of us has a horror story is what it comes down to,” said Dawn Zammuto, 48, of Farmington, who is raising 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren. “It’s a story that is heartbreaking, mainly for the children.”

Diane Loranger, 66, of Saco, who is raising 12- and 14-year-old grandchildren, said much of that heartbreak is caused by the state’s push to reunite the children with their parents even when they have a pattern of substance abuse and mental health problems. Without the stress of raising the children, the parents are able to pull their lives together, Loranger said, but that falls apart when the state pulls the children out of kinship care and puts them in the parents’ home.

“The person that really suffers is the child,” Loranger said. “You’ve got one more wound that the child won’t recover from because no matter what people tell you, children are not resilient. Children are survivors. Every scar that’s left from a failed reunification is something that child will have to contend with through adulthood.”

Lufkin said her 8-year-old daughter’s reunification after living with Lufkin’s family for two years was “horrendous.”

“It took this child from a very happy, secure child and turned her into somebody who is afraid of everything and has severe anxiety,” Lufkin said.

Loranger said she would like to see one attempt at reunification, rather than multiple. If that effort fails, she believes the state should move forward with a permanent kinship placement and allow visitation between the parents and children.

“The statute of best interest of the child has no teeth,” she said. “It’s always subject to somebody’s subjective interpretation. We need a much more stringent statute.”

Neither of Lufkin’s daughters are legally adopted. She said the process is too difficult and too expensive. The family, who took in the youngest child last fall, said there is a process just to figure out who will pay for formula and diapers.

Partridge said kinship families save the state enough money that it could help families with those legal challenges. She said kinship care costs the state about $500 per year for every child compared to $30,000 per year for children in foster care. Partridge told lawmakers this year that the state could use a portion of that savings to help kinship families with attorney fees. She said she spent more than $50,000 to adopt her granddaughter. Partridge’s daughter has now taken Partridge back to court in a bid to have the adoption annulled.

FAMILY HELP

Strout said there are kinship parents in her support group who have lost their children after caring for them for six years or more. Most of the time the parents’ desire to get the children back is motivated by a quest for additional state aid, she said.

The fear of losing the children to the parents turns kinship parents into hostages, Lufkin said. The families will not seek help or live with extreme difficulty, for fear of igniting an incident that will lead the children to be taken away.

Strout’s children, both of whom have graduated from college since begging her to take them home, have been reunited with their mother. Strout, too, has restored her relationship with her daughter.

“The ultimate goal is to stay well and heal and protect the family,” Strout said. “I think it works better within a family than in a foster situation.”