Bet Tzedek takes its name from the Hebrew translation for “house of justice” – and as an organization that provides free legal assistance to low-income residents of Los Angeles County, it lives up to its name. Their 58-person staff works on a wide range of issues, including worker’s rights, human trafficking, elder abuse, and Holocaust survivor services.
Bet Tzedek also provides support for grandparents caring for their grandchildren through the Kinship Care Project—an important but often under-supported group of caregivers.
These intergenerational families, often called “grandfamilies,” form when parents are not able to care for their children themselves. This can happen for a number of reasons, but in extreme circumstances, it is the result of drug use, incarceration, or abuse.
While research overwhelmingly shows that family members are ideal caregivers in the absence of parents, they’re often not given the support or information they need. Especially in situations where the transition is sudden, assuming care of a child can drastically impact a household’s health and finances. In California, two-thirds of these kin caregivers are over 60 years old, and half receive public assistance. A quarter live below the poverty line.
“Without formal guardianship over these children, caregivers can’t make everyday decisions about a child’s education, medical care, or living situation,” said Liz Gonzalez, a Bet Tzedek Kinship Care Staff Attorney. “They can’t get access to public benefits to pay for these things, either.”
Older caregivers face unique challenges. Most have not been the primary caregiver for a young child since raising their own children. Many are also on a fixed income, and are more likely to have chronic health problems.
Bet Tzedek’s Kinship Care Project focuses on these challenges, and helps grandparents and other relatives with guardianship, adoption, foster care benefits, and educational benefits that allow both adult and child to thrive.
For Maxine,* Bet Tzedek’s services have been invaluable as she cares for her four-year-old granddaughter. Two years ago, Maxine’s daughter left her granddaughter at her home, and did not return for the child. Maxine is no longer working and has a husband and another daughter at home to help, so caring for the child is not a hardship. “I’m happy to do it,” she said. “She’s my granddaughter and I want what’s best for her.”
But as the child got older, Maxine knew that she would soon need legal guardianship for the child to enroll her in school and keep her vaccinations up to date. She went to Bet Tzedek for assistance. They began the guardianship process, but when the mother of the child learned about it, she took the child back. After several hearings and increasingly erratic behavior from the mother, Gonzalez was able to secure Maxine guardianship.
“I’m so happy and so grateful to have her,” Maxine said of Gonzalez.
Maxine’s case is just one of more than 100 kinship cases Bet Tzedek handles each year. “We evaluate all their legal needs to make sure adults and children alike have access to food, shelter and medical care,” said Gonzalez. “This work helps keep children and their caregivers out of poverty by addressing these needs, and keeps everyone in a stable home environment.”