At a ceremony on Tuesday, a New Haven woman became the first recipient of a new grant to provide financial relief to guardians who care for the children of their family members.

New Haven children’s probate judge John Keyes presented a $1,000 Respite/Relief Grant for the first time on Tuesday to New Haven resident Emma Wright, who has been the adopted mother of 15 children over the last 19 years. The grant, connected to the statewide Family Respite Fund, was the brainchild of state Sen. Toni Harp, through whose work $500,000 was appropriated to the Fund. The New Haven Probate Court received $150,000 of that funding to spend at its discretion and used the money to establish the Respite/Relief Grant, Harp said.

The Respite Fund is an expansion of the Kinship Fund, a program started in 1998 that gives grants of up to $250 per year to families taking care of one extra child and up to $500 for families taking care of more, said Emma Jones, director of the grant program. While foster parents receive larger, monthly stipends, family guardians have only been eligible for these small grants. The fund also provides between $100 and $1,000 to family guardians who lose their jobs, are evicted or are dealing with emergencies.

“Relatives coming through the court were aware that foster parents were getting so much more,” Jones said. “There needs to be some sort of relief — not welfare, but relief.”

Beginning with the welfare reforms of the early 1990s, Connecticut began placing children who would otherwise be put in foster care with extended family members. Lawmakers claimed that the program would cut costs while keeping families together, Keyes said. Family guardians are not entitled to the stipend that foster parents receive.

“[The fund] ultimately saves the state dollars, but it gives people the help they need when they need it,” Harp said.

Keyes said the grant program will facilitate the placement of children with family members.

“If you really believe in relative placement, you’ve got to support the relatives,” he said.

Wright, who received her check alongside some of her adopted children, began taking care of foster children in 1968. She said for the past 19 years she has been taking care of members of her own family — grandchildren, grandnephews and grandnieces.

Wright and her husband, who recently lost his job, have faced a large increase in their property tax rates because their house is meant to accommodate three families. In addition to helping out with the tax burden, the money, which totals $100 per child, will help her with incidental expenses, Wright said.

“It will be helpful for the needs of the kids,” she said. “There’s always a pair of sneakers or a school material that they need.”

Jones said the grant is long overdue.

“It’s a feel good thing for us, but when you look at [Wright’s] circumstances, it’s not that much,” she said.

According to the New Haven Probate Court, about 52,000 Connecticut children live in households run by non-parental family members.

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