Sonya Begay is a 63-year-old registered member of the Navajo Nation who has custody of her three grandchildren. Grandfamilies, in which grandparents like Sonya, other relatives, or family friends raise children, are more likely to have Black or Native American members than the general population. According to Generations United 2020 annual State of Grandfamilies report, Facing a Pandemic: Grandfamilies Living Together During COVID-19 and Thriving Beyond, 8% of Native American children are part of grandfamilies. 

In addition, the foster care system increasingly relies on kin caregivers. And in Sonya’s case, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) requires that child welfare agencies work with the Navajo Nation to identify a placement with family or a member of the Navajo Nation. Nearly one-third of children in foster care are provided for by family members, an increase of 8% in the last decade. This is a positive trend; Sonya’s grandchildren experienced both protective custody and foster care before she gained custody. However, children placed with kin often do not receive the same level of assistance as children in non-relative or non-kin foster care, such as monthly foster care maintenance payments, and a pathway to supported permanency through Guardianship Assistance Programs and adoption subsidies.

Life on a Reservation during COVID-19

Fortunately, Sonya was able to find the resources to take care of her family. However, COVID-19 has created new and unexpected challenges for both her family, living in Maryland, as well as her mother and sister, who live on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. 

“The Navajo reservation has been afflicted so heavily at this point, it’s harrowing to think about what’s going to happen,” Sonya said. “I can call them and see if they’re okay, we can’t go over there. I have other relatives who have passed on because of this virus.”

Many Navajo families, particularly those who live on reservations like Sonya’s mother and sister, live hours away from the nearest grocery store. 

“At my mom’s family’s reservation it’s almost a two-hour drive to the store. So, by the time they make that two hour drive, people have taken all the toilet paper and all the soaps and sanitizers, and there’s nothing left for them.”

Not having a post office box is also a challenge for reservation families. It can often be difficult to locate people in need.

Sonya’s family do not have physical addresses, which can be challenging when trying to access food. “Where my mom and my sister Pat live, people were trying to find them to bring food. Pat said she had to stand on top of the hill and wave them down,” Sonya said. 

Many grandfamilies across the country are also struggling with food insecurity. Forty-three percent of grandparents in grandfamilies fear leaving their home for food because of COVID-19. Thirty-two percent have arrived at food pick-up sites after they have run out of food.

“I think most grandparents were not prepared to have school-age children to stay home with them during the pandemic. The children get free lunch at school, but since they’re at home, there’s not enough resources for the grandparents to meet this additional expense for their food.” 

Despite the challenges she and her family face, Sonya remains positive about the future. “We’ve lasted, we’ve overcome some things, and our families are getting stronger.”