When a grandparent or other family member has to step in and become a guardian of a relative’s child, they often face many challenges, including monetary ones. About 15 years ago, New Haven Probate Judge John Keyes recognized that people were struggling and started a program to help them.

There are state assistance programs available, but they often don’t kick in soon enough, Keyes explained. “Children have immediate needs,” Keyes said.

The probate court program gives qualified guardians access to two funding sources. They are the Kinship Fund and the Grandparents and Relatives Respite Fund, which receive a combined $2 million in state funding through the General Assembly.

The funds are an especially important resource during the holiday season, when guardians often need a little extra money. “It’s an important time because the financial stress is greater. You want the children to feel good about themselves, to enjoy and celebrate the holidays,” Keyes said. “You want them to feel normal.”

Keyes said the money is handed out as grants, with the most needy families getting top priority.

Grants from the Kinship Fund help qualified court-appointed guardians pay for items such as winter coats, hats and boots for children, as well as school uniforms, eyeglasses and hearing aids. The money can also be used to enable kids participate in school field trips, sports and clubs and to purchase associated supplies and equipment.

The Grandparents and Relatives Respite Fund can help with broader family expenses such as housing, food, transportation and child care. The grants are given in amounts of up to $500 per child, with a limit of $2,000 per family.

“The funds are grounded in the principle that children whose parents are unable to care for them should be raised by another family member whenever possible,” Probate Court Administrator Paul J. Knierim said. “Though perhaps small in monetary terms, the grants can be hugely important in terms of contributing to the stability of the home and helping to keep a child who may be at risk for abandonment secure, on track developmentally and ready to learn.”

Grandparents Benefit

The kinship and respite programs are overseen by the Children’s Trust Fund, a state agency that works to prevent child abuse and neglect. Guardians may find application forms and other information about the programs at their local Probate Court.

During the 2013 fiscal year, the funds provided grants to 3,105 families and 4,681 children. The prior year, the probate courts provided grants to 2,854 families and 4,366 children.

The guardians typically take over after a parent dies, or because the parent is absent because of mental illness, addiction or other circumstances. “If these selfless relatives could no longer fulfill this obligation, the state foster care system undoubtedly would see a greater influx of children at a significant cost to taxpayers,” Knierim said.

Vincent Russo, legislative program manager at the state Probate Court Administrator’s Office, said that grandparents appointed by the Probate Court as guardians are the most common grant recipients. “However, any relative, related by blood or marriage, is eligible for the grants,” Russo said. “Ironically, grandparents and other family members appointed as guardians in the Probate Courts were ineligible for financial assistance before the establishment of these programs. Individuals serving as foster parents, on the other hand, receive considerable state subsidies.”

Russo continued that the grants often enable a struggling family to pay for an item, program or service – a tutor to improve a student’s math skills, piano lessons for an aspiring musician, a ticket to join classmates on a school trip — “that makes a lasting difference in the life of a child.”