Black kinship caregivers face unique struggles amid COVID-19

Nada Hassanein, USA TODAY

Tameshia Gentry owns a rental cleaning business and moved in with her daughter to save cash right as the pandemic hit. But soon, the 48-year-old Arizona woman would become the primary caregiver for her great-niece, 3-year-old Djahlia.

The pandemic has heightened challenges for multigenerational caregivers, many of whom are vulnerable to the virus while taking care of children.

One in four children living with grandparents are Black, according to Annie E. Casey Foundation KidsCount data using U.S. Census figures. The data was central to a report from Generations United, a nonprofit for multigenerational families.

Black children are also disproportionately represented in foster care, and their kinship caretakers are essential, filling gaps in child welfare systems, the nonprofit says.

Victoria Gray, 69, stands for a portrait on Dec. 9, 2020, at her home in Phoenix.
Victoria Gray, 69, stands for a portrait on Dec. 9, 2020, at her home in Phoenix.

Along with a COVID-19 guide for multigenerational families, the group has created a racial equity tool kit to help health and social services providers become more culturally competent regarding family makeup. As the pandemic causes isolation, grandparents — and resources for them and the children they’re raising — have become even more important.

“It takes a village — our village has gotten really small,” Gentry said. “It takes a village to raise a child, you know? The village is gone, OK? At least the same village.”

Gentry has a spinal disorder and high blood pressure, putting her at high risk of contracting COVID-19. She took in Djahlia while the girl's mom gets help for substance use. The little girl’s doctors are also watching her for vascular abnormalities that run in her family.

Ana Beltran, a Generations United adviser and expert on policies affecting kinship care, said common COVID-19 protocols aren’t safe for vulnerable people like Gentry or senior Black or American Indian residents, who are more at risk of contracting the coronavirus.

Gentry Gray, 84, Alexander Nicholes, 16, and Victoria Gray, 69, talk on their front patio on Dec. 9, 2020, at their home in Phoenix.
Gentry Gray, 84, Alexander Nicholes, 16, and Victoria Gray, 69, talk on their front patio on Dec. 9, 2020, at their home in Phoenix.

“Their needs and the provisions of services to them needs to be more culturally informed and culturally competent,” Beltran said. “You can't have these folks standing in line (for food or to be tested).”

She also pointed to grocery stores establishing senior hours, which aren't helpful "if you can't afford and can’t get to the grocery store," she said. "They don’t allow guests. Grandma can't come in with the small grandchild (and) obviously she can't leave her home."

Phoenix residents Victoria Gray, 69, and husband Gentry, 84, raised and adopted seven grandchildren. Gray runs The GreyNickel, lending her two decades of experience to a group that provides support to older adults caring for their own grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

With schools opening and closing, she’s been seeing vulnerable seniors worry about children going to school and coming home amid the highly contagious coronavirus.

“If we're sending the children out, what are they bringing back to us?” Gray said. “As a kinship caregiver — who might be diabetic, might have a heart condition, or something like that — they’re afraid to send the kids out.”

Many older residents also don’t have laptops or internet for children who are learning remotely, she said.

“It doesn’t help if the kinship caregiver doesn’t know how to use a computer,” she said.

Gentry Gray, 84, and his wife, Victoria Gray, 69, sit for a portrait on Dec. 9, 2020, at their home in Phoenix.
Gentry Gray, 84, and his wife, Victoria Gray, 69, sit for a portrait on Dec. 9, 2020, at their home in Phoenix.

Besides food financial struggles, housing difficulties have also been magnified.

“They’re kicked out of their apartments — even before COVID, we have had families that are in senior living homes that have to move because they’ve taken in children where children aren’t allowed,” Gray said.

Gray said programs like hers and other kinship navigator initiatives are important amid a lack of awareness of the needs and challenges that come with the caregiving.

“We have families that we call the ‘invisible kinship families,’ ” she said. “These are families who have rescued their children … they have no connection with the state. And they're not counted anywhere because no one knows they exist.”

Gentry said she wasn’t prepared to take in her great-niece — let alone amid the restraints of a pandemic.

“Being in this situation caught me off guard,” she said. “It’s been a really tough situation … crazy emotional situation.”

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Reach Nada Hassanein at nhassanein@usatoday.com or on Twitter @nhassanein_.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black grandparent caregivers face unique struggles amid COVID-19