By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Howard Dubowitz, a Maryland pediatrician and researcher who specializes in child protection issues, knows how hard it can be to raise other people's children.
Over the years while talking with grandparents and others who take on the role of guardian when parents struggle, "my heart went out to them - they were trying so hard," said Dubowitz, trained to help treat children who have been abused or neglected.
The number of youth living with relatives or friends instead of their parents has risen nearly 18 percent in the past decade as a growing number of grandparents take on caring for their grandchildren, an analysis of government data shows.
More than 2.7 million children and teenagers have such "grandfamilies" or other alternative living arrangements, up from 2.2 million in 2000, according to a review of the U.S. Census Bureau's latest 2010 data by The Annie E. Casey Foundation released on Wednesday.
Black children are more than twice as likely as other children to find themselves living without their parents, according to the children's charity group, which advocates for situations where children are connected with their caregivers. About one in five black youth end up living with extended family for some time during their childhood, the group found.
Overall, about 9 percent of children and teenagers will live with relatives for at least three months at some point during their childhoods, data showed.
Even as such cross-family ties have grown for various reasons, the report shows that youth in need of new guardians are increasingly placed in the hands of often older caregivers who are more likely to be poor, single, less educated and unemployed.
The group said the findings show an increased need for family caregivers to find support similar to what licensed foster care parents receive. Caregivers not only need financial help, but guidance for legal and other challenges.
SAFE, STABLE AND FAMILIAR
"Research shows kids fare better when they remain in the safe, stable and familiar environment that relatives can provide," Patrick McCarthy, the Foundation's president said.
Robert Geen, the group's director of family services and systems policy, said states need to see the value in placing children with someone they know rather than a stranger, he added. About 1 in 4 children in formal, government-run foster care have been placed with family or friends, the report said.
"Children do feel differently when they are with strangers than with anyone who they have a bond with," said Geen, adding that it can help youth transition from traumatic home lives.
Parents may be forced to give up caring for their children for a variety of reasons, ranging from deep poverty or drug use to physical abuse. While it may seem to make sense for children to live with someone they know, new caregivers also face strain.
According to the report, 60 percent of new, related caregivers are age 50 or older, while 55 percent are not married. Half are unemployed.
Still some experts like Dubowitz cautioned against a blanket approach to placing children in need with family members or other acquaintances. States should seek out kin but also evaluate each case - and each child - individually.
"The situations very enormously. If you have a 60-year-old overweight, diabetic grandma and place a toddler in her care, that's probably not going to be a great arrangement," said Dubowitz, who works at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and has been studying child welfare and health for more than 30 years.
"It's not always fair holding grandma responsible," he said.
Still, Dubowitz acknowledged that having a blood tie can make it easier for some children to adjust.
States can vary widely in how hard they search for relatives or family friends to care for displaced children, according to The Annie E. Casey Foundation, and some need to do a better job in tracking such caregivers down, the report said.
It also urged states to use flexibility in providing benefits such as food stamps and Medicaid to such families. More could be done to also have family care givers become licensed foster parents, which would also provide extra support.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)