Bringing Awareness To Kinship Care
“Did you know September is kinship care awareness month? It’s okay if you didn’t. I’m a child of kinship care and am a kinship adoptive mama who writes adoption-focused children’s books and creates daily adoption content. I didn’t even know it was a thing until my last author event when a social worker told me — which was only two weeks ago. To be fair, no one called it kinship care when I was growing up… but that’s what it was, most commonly grandparents raising grandbabies.
In the south, they like to say, ‘Blood is thicker than water,’ without realizing that’s only half the quote. It goes, ‘The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,’ which has the exact opposite meaning. Nevertheless, the family came first and often at the expense of the safety or mental health of those too young to advocate for themselves.
I think cycles are seldom repeated because of some innate desire to try our luck, but rather cycles are repeated because it’s what we’ve grown comfortable with. It’s easier to continue the chaos than step back and dismantle the brokenness that pieced us together.
What Is Kinship Care?
I’d say all we need is another thing to bring awareness to… but truly, it’s kind of crazy how common it is (more than 5% of all children in the United States are in kinship care), yet it’s widely misunderstood and severely lacking in support. Since many people are still confused or unfamiliar with what the term ‘kinship care’ actually means, I want to take a moment to explain what it is before we dissect it.
Essentially, kinship care is a type of foster care, but not always through the state. The difference is, instead of foster parents who have no prior relationship with the child, kinship care places family (kin), tribe or clan members, godparents, stepparents, and in some cases, close family friends, in the position of caretaker for the child. It can be off the record, temporary guardianship, permanent guardianship, placement through foster care, and in some cases finalized through adoption (which is then called kinship adoption).
Personal History With Kinship Care
As I said, this was so common in my childhood I never even questioned it. I had cousins being raised by grandparents, friends being raised by grandparents, sometimes an aunt and uncle may step in, or even an older sibling. Most of us recognized our biological parents were too unstable to raise us full time, so we just accepted our normal, but didn’t have a name for it… it just was.
Many states, foster advocates, and families are advocating for kinship care over traditional foster placements because it keeps children in their families, reduces trauma, and often increases the likelihood of reunification — all wonderful things. But for kinship care to succeed we also need to talk about the challenges.
As someone who was a child of kinship care, and became a kinship caretaker by the age of 24, my advocacy is rooted in lived experience, and thus something I care about deeply. My grandparents gained custody of me at two, but transferred temporary custody to another family member from 14 until I emancipated myself at 17.
I gained permanent guardianship of my biological half-sister when she was only four months old, before finalizing her adoption four years later. I’m well acquainted with the hardships of this path, and I believe shared experiences help educate, encourage, and offer relatability to those in the trenches searching for a light.
There is plenty to cover, but for the sake of time, let’s talk about boundaries, changed relationships, and resources.
Crucial Topics Within Kinship Care
In foster care, a case worker helps foster parents establish boundaries intended to keep the children in care safe. In kinship care, there is no one enforcing boundaries and so often they are overlooked altogether. Biological parents struggling with drug addiction, abusive behavior, or mental instability should not be granted unsupervised, unplanned, or unlimited visits. When you put yourself in the parenting role for a child, their safety and well-being must take precedence over everyone else.
Felt safety and stability are important to help the child transition. Routine is a proven tool to help encourage regulation amid transition and uncertainty. Potential kinship care providers need to ask themselves if they are willing to set boundaries with family members knowing it can, and often does, cause tension, misplaced anger, and inner family quarrels.
Which is the perfect segway into changed relationships. Relationships will change. Your son, daughter, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, etc. may expect unrestricted access to you and their child, but as the caretaker, it isn’t your responsibility to appease the unhealthy adult. It’s your obligation to protect the child who isn’t able to protect themselves. Despite whatever bad choices have led to the need for someone to step in, it is NEVER in the child’s best interest to share emotionally charged opinions of their biological parents or other family members. However, you must share age-appropriate truths.
When your priorities change, relationships often follow. Friends may become more distant as your schedule shifts to accommodate the new physical and emotional needs of a kiddo that needs more intentional connection, appointments, activities, etc. Oftentimes, kids who come from instability may have trauma responses or difficult behaviors some people are not able to understand or excuse. It’s not uncommon, yet many people are unaware and unprepared to lose their community when they need them most.
Speaking of a lost community, number three on my list of things to cover was resources… or the lack of. Kinship care providers rarely receive any monetary support similar to what foster parents receive. They aren’t collecting child support, state funds, reimbursement, or the like. All added financial obligations are almost always the caretaker’s responsibility. From diapers to education and everything in between depending on the age and need of the child. Aside from the lack of financial support, there is a severe lack of educational resources as well.
All foster parents are required to take classes that equip them for trauma responses, connected parenting, and other atypical needs common to kids in care, while kinship care providers are left without. Most kinship care kids are navigating the same situations that foster kids have, thus their care providers would benefit from the same or varied support as they learn to navigate caring for a child that has experienced loss, abandonment, drug exposure, abuse, trauma, undiagnosed needs… the list goes on. All potential kinship caregivers must understand the sacrifice required and not place any frustration over their inevitable lack of support on the child.
I understand the weight of this because it’s part of my story. I know the consequences of a lack of boundaries between a child and their addicted parent because I was that child who had a front-row seat to the chaos. I understand the long-term effects of hearing a parent’s name run through the mud because I was listening. I know how relationships twist and break under the weight of kept boundaries and unbiased truth because I watched them snap. I’ve balanced the checkbook when all we had was just enough and no help in sight. I’ve listened to rants about how more discipline would correct poor behavior because toddlers can’t claim trauma… I know… I know and I want you to know too.
Honestly, I’d feel pretty crummy if I left you with a list of problems and no solutions. I’m hope-minded, so while I want my words to reflect the truth, I also need them to convey hope and healing. So here’s how we heal…
Ways To Improve The Kinship Care Community
For those of you reading this who are NOT kinship care providers but know one: Show up. It’s as simple as that. If you feel underprepared to offer yourself as a sitter, offer to finance one for the night. Ask about food allergies, then provide a meal. Better yet, create a whole meal train. Buy a jumbo pack of diapers and leave them on the porch. Invite this family to events but have some grace if they show up late or don’t show up at all, and trust that it mattered that you invited them. Can you provide a month of childcare, donate an old car to their newly licensed driver, or offer to teach a life skill like cooking, sewing, or car maintenance? The possibilities are limitless. Consider a need and be willing to meet it.
For those of you reading who ARE kinship care providers: Seek to strengthen or build your community. You can’t make your people show up for you but you also can’t expect them to if they don’t know your needs. Don’t be too proud to send out an S.O.S. in a group message that goes something like this, ‘Hey friends, life is full right now and some days we are barely keeping afloat. If anyone has access to extra kids’ clothes in these sizes, extra formula, extra diapers, or extra hands…we could use a village right now.’ You might be surprised how many people show up. If you don’t have a community willing to rally around you, seek out community resources like churches and food banks. These places can often point you toward other outreach programs willing to help through hardship or transition.
There Will Be Better Days
Some days are hard and some are harder than others. You may hit your knees and wonder if you’re even capable of taking another step forward. You will cry and scream and question if you’re doing it right. You will weep, praise, and celebrate milestones you were sure you’d never meet. You will grieve, hurt, and advocate alongside your child and wonder what they’re thinking while you pray they would open up to you. You will navigate strong-willed, stubborn, and tenacious spirits.
Some will be manipulative, while others will crave your validation — both will need your unconditional love and test you in the most unloving ways to see if it’s trustworthy. You will lay awake at night and wake with too little sleep to do it all again… and you will give thanks, knowing it’s all worth it. That’s kinship care.”
Read more from Raquel here:
‘We will not ask our daughter to celebrate when she feels the pangs of grief, nor will we tell her to grieve when she feels like dancing.’: Adoptive mom talks giving kids choice to celebrate adoption anniversaries
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