They’re raising other people’s kids. They may finally be eligible for assistance.

By: - May 5, 2023 5:00 am

Tina and David Miller (center) of Littleton took in three children they didn’t know after they were removed from their homes. From left to right, Miyah and Dre Akines and Kah-Leal Oliver, are now 13, 17, and 9. The Millers are flanked by their sons, Michael and Matthew. (Courtesy)

David and Tina Miller were empty nesters with plans to retire and travel when they took in their son’s girlfriend’s niece and two nephews, none of whom they’d met. They knew only that the kids, all under 12, were living in relatives’ homes where drugs and needles were more consistent than heat, food, and running water.

That was 4½ years ago. Their son, then 18 and living with them, and the girlfriend are no longer together. The kids’ parents are incarcerated or gone. The Millers, 61 and 55, are the one steady presence in the kids’ lives. They’ve each taken on two jobs to make the finances work.

When the couple, of Littleton, told their story to lawmakers in March, several thanked them for their sacrifice. The Millers would prefer something else: a right to the federal financial assistance they’d get if they were related or even stepparents to the children. Right now, they get only Medicaid for the kids’ medical expenses.

“It’s the little things,” Tina Miller told House members, like a $300-a-week grocery bill and basketball sneakers. “We’re not asking for a million dollars. It’s a little bit of help with clothes or food.”

Siblings Miyah Akines, 13, and Kah-Leal Oliver, 9. (Courtesy)

That request looks likely to be granted. If it does, an estimated 300 children living in New Hampshire would receive the benefit, which averages about $7,000 a year. 

Senate Bill 172 cleared the Senate in February and the House Thursday without opposition. The House Finance Committee will now take a second look because the bill involves spending public money. But it’s unlikely to face a fight there with the estimated $2 million annual expense covered by federal funds.

If it becomes law, New Hampshire would be one of fewer than a dozen states that allow non-related or “fictive kin” caregivers like the Millers to receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), according to a May 2022 report from the federal Children’s Bureau. In New England, only Vermont does, according to the report.

Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor, put it this way to House Children and Family Law Committee members in March: “I see this bill as a way to help. It’s going to help children. It’s going to help the families that are taking them in. And I think that’s a win-win for everyone.”

The bill has the backing of the Department of Health and Human Services and the New Hampshire Children’s Trust, a statewide child abuse prevention organization that connects people caring for children with state benefits, community resources, financial assistance, information, and referrals.

While benefits like Medicaid are available to children being raised by non-family caregivers, federally TANF, which can be used for food, shelter, clothing, day care, and other basic needs, is not.

Under SB 172, families like the Millers could receive that assistance until a child is 18 or until 20, if they are still in high school. To qualify, the caregiver must be a court-appointed guardian.

Patti Stolte, executive director at the Family Resource Center in Gorham, raised two children, from ages 2 and 5, who were unrelated to her. As the state’s drug abuse crisis has worsened, the need for caregivers has increased, she said.

In her testimony to the committee in March, Stolte called the bill a “no-brainer.”

“I just want to say these families that are willing to step up really do need the support,” she said. “I never want to put a burden on our state that isn’t going to be really productive. And this is a very productive investment in our families and in these children. Our children deserve this.”

Dre Akines, 13 when he joined the Miller family, is now looking at colleges. (Courtesy)

The Millers’ relationship with the kids, Miyah and Dre Akines, 13 and 17, and Kah-Leal Oliver, 9, began with a call to the child protection agency in Vermont, where they were living with relatives. 

The Millers’ son, then 18 and living with them, told them that during a Thanksgiving visit with his girlfriend he had seen needles and drugs in the home and discovered there was no heat, water, or food, Tina said. She urged him and his girlfriend to contact child protection services. 

The children were removed in less than two hours and placed with another family member, Tina said. When that placement also posed health and safety risks, the Millers agreed to take the kids temporarily until a new home could be found. When the Millers learned the kids would be separated, they asked to take the kids permanently.

The decision isn’t one they’ve questioned.

“The children have enriched our lives as much as we’ve enriched theirs, I’m sure,” David said.

But it has upended their lives financially.

Both took on two jobs after their savings was gone. David works as a state police dispatcher overnight and as an elementary substitute teacher during the day. Tina works in the school cafeteria during the school year and at Santa’s Village during the summer. 

They describe the decision to start a new family as the only obvious choice.

“Every kid deserves a chance,” David said. “And we just felt that because the kids were going to get split up, it would have destroyed them. And we just felt it was in the best interest of them.”

During the pandemic, they received about $2,500 in federal food assistance. It was a significant help as grocery, gas, and heating bills have climbed. 

The Millers have been lobbying for a law change to make TANF available to families like theirs for about three years. 

“We don’t want someone else to raise them for us because I think we’re doing a pretty good job of that ourselves,” David told lawmakers in March. “But a little bit of help would go a long way for us.”

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Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications. Email: [email protected]