Kin: relatives, relations, family, connections, kindred, of the same blood. For centuries children have been raised informally by kin when their parents were unable to care for them. Currently federal policy upholds the bonds children have and develop with their relatives by giving priority to “kinship caregivers.” It is no surprise then that a quarter of the children in our child welfare system are placed with grandparents, aunts or uncles. But how much do we really know about what kinship caregivers need? As an agency, we’ve been listening to the needs of the kinship caregivers we have been serving for over 30 years. They have taught us well and have asked us to share their teachings so others may recognize and incorporate them into program planning, training, resources and supportive services unique to families built through kinship care.
Ten Things Kinship Caregivers Need . . .
Answers: Who has legal custody of the child? What’s the difference between guardianship and adoption? What are the plans for permanency? What are the responsibilities of the placing agency, the birth parents, and other extended family? What financial supports are available for the child? Having access to legal counsel is imperative for the successful navigation of our complex legal system. In order to create an appropriate plan that best serves the child’s needs for safety and permanency, kinship caregivers will need access to legal counsel and assistance in navigating the child welfare/court system. Many local law schools and bar associations offer clinical programs that provide free legal services by law students under the supervision of licensed attorneys.
Resources: Many of the grandparents we serve are raising 2, 3 or even 4 grandchildren on a modest and/or fixed income. Accessibility to resources in their community that can assist with basic needs; food, clothing, child care, etc… are absolutely critical for family stability. More than one in 5 children living in kinship care lives in poverty (nearly 1.3 million children) and without the linkages to the safety net resources in their community these children and families are at risk.
Peer Support: Being around other kinship families decreases the sense of isolation that many kinship caregivers feel. The experience of being a kinship caregiver is unique and is recognized as a different form of parenting. Peer support allows members to share their collective experience and give/receive support to others with similar life challenges and experiences. Participating in monthly kinship caregiver support groups gives members the opportunity to be amongst kin – a very normalizing and validating experience.
Parenting Support: Because young children experience the world through their relationships with parents and caregivers, those relationships are fundamental to the healthy development of the child’s physical, emotional, social, behavioral and intellectual capabilities (National Center for Prevention and Central, 2009). Kinship caregivers are typically parenting highly impacted children who have been exposed to multiple and /or chronic traumatic experiences. Parenting support that equips kinship caregivers with specialized interventions and tools to effectively manage the increased emotional and behavioral challenges that many children with complex trauma manifest will empower kinship caregivers in their parenting style. Specialized training that is adapted to the unique needs of kinship caregivers who are often balancing the dual roles of grandparenting and parenting is essential.
Help: Family members have raised others’ children since the beginning of time, but the challenges facing these families have changed dramatically as of late. Feelings of guilt, anger, and embarrassment often permeate the caregiver’s experience. Learning to ask for help and being able to access specialized supportive services is critical. Parenting multiple children can be challenging and exhausting at any age. Many grandparents who are raising children share that their greatest need is for respite. Some time to relax, take a walk, read a book or sleep – is greatly valued. Often the first resource that is requested by the kinship caregivers we serve is for a few hours of respite support.
Respect: Being a non-nuclear family can be a challenge at back to school night, soccer games or parent-teacher conferences where community members are trying to figure out your family’s dynamics. Kinship caregivers desire respect and acceptance like all other diverse family groups. Our most basic need as human beings is the need to belong; to feel we are amongst kin. Empowering kinship caregivers to actively advocate for their children’s and family’s needs certainly deserves our respect.
Understanding: Grief and loss permeate the experience of the kinship caregiver, the birth parents and the child. The core issue of loss is often times easily triggered and reacted to in these sensitized relationships. Assistance with grief and loss is key to healing and successful relationship building in kinship care. Children often feel angry, hurt, fear, abandonment, and confusion. Support groups for caregivers and children with professionals who understand the core issues of grief and loss that are experienced through each stage of development will assist in the facilitation/creation of healthy relationships and coping strategies.
Sense of Humor: In order to find joy in the present moment and overcome the many troubling memories/challenges that surface, one must use levity and humor. Emotions are contagious; it’s easy to “catch” an emotion. One of the most effective tools caregivers can use daily to de-stress their home is to laugh often and frequently. Incorporating playful rituals into the home environment such as joke night at the dinner table, all-day pajama day, feelings charades and Tuesday game night will all help to model and teach healthy coping strategies. Families that learn to de-stress together build in strengthened resources that help to sustain them through times of crisis/need.
Empathy: Kinship caregiver families are often loaded with painful experiences; parental drug addiction, incarceration, abandonment, abuse, and neglect. These families need to experience compassion and empathy from their supportive systems. Keep in mind that caregiver stress and unresolved trauma may lead to intergenerational trauma impacting both the caregiver and the child’s mental health. Building bridges of support directly to the kinship family minimizes isolation and distress. One of the greatest gifts any of us can give to our kinship caregivers is to extend to them our listening ear and an abundance of empathy.
Community: The larger community; schools, our neighborhoods, our faith communities offer opportunities for social connections that help to sustain and support the kinship family. Community networks that welcome and celebrate the unique contributions that our kinship caregivers are making all over this nation become a powerful partner in helping to sustain our kinship families. It is our hope that you ask a kinship caregiver today . . . how can I help?
By: Allison Davis Maxon, LMFT
10 Things Kinship Caregivers Need, Kinship Parenting Toolbox, 2015, EMK Press and Fostering Families Today, Jan/Feb 2013 Louis & Company Publishing
Allison is a clinician, educator, and advocate specializing in adoption/permanency, attachment, and trauma. She is passionate about creating systems of care that are permanency-competent and strength-based. She has 25 years of expertise in the fields of child welfare, trauma and mental health and is currently the chief operating officer of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency. Allison is co-author and master trainer of Kinship Center’s ACT: An Adoption and Permanency Curriculum for Child Welfare and Mental Health Professionals, co-author and master trainer of Pathways to Permanence: Parenting the Child of Loss and Trauma, and creator of The Ten Things Your Child Needs Every Day, a DVD with tools that help parents/caregivers strengthen their attachment relationship with their child. You can reach Allison at firstname.lastname@example.org or (949) 939-9016.