THE BLOG

Black or White? Let's Talk About Gray

02/02/2015 11:17 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015

Kevin Costner has taken on race in his new movie Back or White. But really it's about family.

What he's done is shine a light on the changing face of families in America and reminded us of what's important.

Eloise. It's about a little girl who needs what all children need -- a safe and permanent family. And like 7.8 million other children in America, she found that in a home belonging to her grandparents.

Grandparents, aunts and uncles often step up because they are family. Heading a grandfamily (families in which grandparents and other relatives raise children) isn't a role people seek.

It's one they accept. Often with little to no notice and even less support. They do us all a great service.

Caregivers, like Papa and Grandma Wee Wee in Black or White, save U.S. taxpayers more than 4 billion dollars a year.

Why? Because they usually raise children outside the foster care system shouldering the financial and emotional burden on their own.

In fact, for every child in the system in the care of relatives, 23 children are being raised by family informally outside of the system.

Grandfamilies are created for a variety of reasons, including as in Black or White, substance abuse and death of a parent. They also come together because of poverty, deportation, mental illness, divorce and military deployment.

Whatever the reason, they all have one thing in common -- challenges.

What does Black or White teach us about grandfamilies, their needs and the challenges they face?

Legal Assistance

Unlike most grandfamilies, Papa or Elliot (Kevin Costner) is a wealthy lawyer at a firm that could help him fight for Eloise. Grandma Wee Wee or Edwina (Octavia Spencer) had an attorney for a nephew. All she needed to do was give "the look" and he fell in line with her wishes.

Most grandparents don't have this kind of access to free legal counsel. And often without legal assistance they can't enroll the children in school or access health care or other services on their behalf.

Grandfamilies need to know what their legal options are and get the guidance to know how to best proceed without having to mortgage their home or spend down their retirement savings.

Workplace Supports

Of the grandparents raising grandchildren, 58 percent are in the workforce. And unlike Elliot who was senior in his law firm and able to call the shots or Edwina who was a successful entrepreneur, grandparents often struggle with employers who don't get it.

Employers may offer good or adequate benefits to cover children but they seldom cover grandchildren. Time off for adoption is often available but not if you're suddenly caring for a child without a legal relationship.

Employers need to review their policies to be sure they are all family-friendly.

A Ladder Up

Elliot and Edwina both had beautiful homes and help, whether paid or given by extended family. By contrast 21 percent of grandfamilies live in poverty. They struggle with adequate housing, putting food on the table and buying school supplies.

Despite being poor or on the margin, most grandparents don't access benefits that are available to them or the children in their care. For example while all the children are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, only 12 percent receive it.

Why don't they? Most don't know what's out there.

Kinship navigators can help but services to navigate the families to need to be put in place as well.

Substance Abuse Treatment

Substance abuse played a huge role in Black or White. Elliot and Reggie, Eloise's father, both struggled with their addictions. At different times they each said they needed space to breathe meaning time to face their demons.

Mental health services and substance abuse treatment needs to be more available to grandfamilies.

Yet despite all of the challenges, children in the care of relatives fare well. They have more stability, are more likely to stay connected to brothers and sisters or, in the case of Black or White extended family, and preserve their cultural heritage and community bonds.

In the end, Eloise was the bridge between the people who loved her. She gave them the reason to be better people.

She believed in them.

And flawed as they were, they learned to trust each other and meet--not in black or white--but gray where a child waited.