In the REPORT TO THE CONGRESS ON KINSHIP FOSTER CARE U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, completed by the Administration on Children, Youth and Families Children’s Bureau, it is stated that “Because States' data are scarce, it is difficult to estimate how fast public kinship care has increased-but available evidence suggests that it increased substantially during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In the 25 States that do have data, the proportion of children in public kinship care increased from 18 to 31 percent between 1986 and 1990."
I was struck when a foster care leader in our state system described relative foster parents as “the most under-resourced families in the system.” It seems as though there is an un-examined assumption that because relative foster parents are well, relatives, love will carry the day and they will not need help. Foster parenting is a hard job for anyone who does it. And there are some aspects of kinship care that make it uniquely difficult.
Ambiguity of choice presents a significant stressor. Unrelated foster parents choose to be foster parents, decide that this is a good time in their lives, and have to go through an elaborate screening before even hearing the name of a child. Relative foster parents are presented with a child who is a member of their family and who is in distress. They may or may not know this child, and this may or may not be a good time in their lives. But they have to choose between taking the child or having the child go into the child welfare system. Even those who feel deeply that this is more than they can handle also feel a moral obligation to care for the child. The Report to Congress further states that: “Unlike non-kin foster parents, kinship caregivers usually receive little, if any, advance preparation for their role. In all States, non-kin foster parents are required to complete a rigorous training program before the State will license them. Such training helps future foster parents understand the needs of abused or neglected children and emphasizes strategies for meeting these needs effectively. Non-kin foster parents also have time to prepare mentally for their new roles and to adjust their living space to make it appropriate for children of a particular age. In sharp contrast, kinship caregivers often become involved in a crisis situation with little or no notice.”
Accompanying family history and dynamics are always present in the placement. The related child comes with an entire history and many attached feelings. This aspect of relative foster care seems to be rarely discussed in the literature, but is a powerful factor in the outcome of the placement. For example, if a grandmother is caring for a grandchild, that child inevitably connects to a history of pain and distress with this mother’s own child. Perhaps the child’s mother is addicted to drugs. Inevitably her mother, the child’s grandmother, has suffered a lot of pain around this. She may have taken her daughter to treatment progress without success. She has often been deeply hurt by her daughter’s betrayal, such as if her daughter has stolen from her. She has experienced many episodes of hope when her daughter was in rehab or appeared to be turning her life around, followed by despair when the drugs took control again. Furthermore, she may have had experiences with the child’s father, perhaps bad ones. Maybe the child’s father was abusive to her daughter. All of this hurts a mother’s heart and leaves deep impressions. And in fact her daughter is often still in the area, drifting in and out of the family’s life.
How does this all effect the grandmother’s relationship with the child? She loves the child. She wants to do the best for him and raise him right. She wants to protect him from all harm. Yet who does the child look like? How hopeful does she feel towards the child’s future? How resentful does she feel about having this added responsibility in her life at this time?
All these factors are also influenced by the relative caregiver’s health, his/her financial and social situation, and many other aspects of their life.
Often the caregiver has no one to talk to about this, no one to validate their complex feelings and to help them separate the present with the child from the past with the child’s parents. So, the child and the caregiver are both being profoundly influenced by the unexamined past.
Then, to continue to quote the report, “Unlike trained non-kin foster parents, kinship caregivers often receive little formal training and may have a limited understanding of the child welfare system, what is expected of them, and the resources available to assist them. Kinship caregivers, however, generally have greater knowledge of the family history and dynamics that have created the need for a child to be placed outside the home. Not only are public kinship caregivers less likely than non-kin foster parents to receive services, their needs are more often overlooked. Public kinship caregivers are referred for, offered, and actually receive fewer services for themselves and for the children in their care public kinship caregivers are less likely to request or receive educational or mental health assessments, individual or group counseling, or tutoring for the children in their care.”
Specifically, the kinship care providers often receive little training about trauma, how it affects children, and how they can heal. The main advantage of having such knowledge is that it enables parents to define the child’s behavior differently. When the child won’t eat with them, or refuses to talk, or questions their directives, or has a meltdown in a store, or is aggressive with other children in the home, or won’t go to sleep at night, the parent sees this as rejection, defiance, and a behavior to be eliminated. If the parent is given training that really helps them understand behavior differently, they instead can define the behavior as fear, emotional over load, and problems with trust. This change of definition leads to a complete change of reaction. The kinship care parent is less likely to take the behavior personally, less likely to respond with punishment and more likely to respond with support. This training is essential for kinship care parents. And it must be available in many flexible delivery modes, including a trained person who can offer the parent training in their home individually. Support groups can be both helpful and powerful, but for some parents the thought of having to schedule attendance at a group is such a stressor that any benefit is undermined. A flexible delivery system allows each parent to utilize the help that fits where they are at the moment.
Another essential component of supporting kinship care is to pay attention to the experience of the parent themselves. How is being a kinship caregiver affecting the parent themselves? At a recent training one foster mother stated that she had been a foster mother for sixteen years and no one had ever asked her how the work was affecting her. Caring for children with trauma histories produces vicarious traumatization in foster and kinship care parents as it does in treatment workers. Foster and kinship parents have the additional stress of being largely alone when crisis occur; of possible getting pressure from extended family; of losing friends and family because of being unable to leave the child; of worrying about the effect of the foster child on their biological children; and other issues. For kinship foster parents managing the relationship with the child’s biological parents may be another source of stress.
The kinship care parents need a safe place to discuss all this and to receive validation. This can be individual or in a group. A group, when it is possible for a parent, has the strong benefit of helping the parent that they are not alone. But the parent needs to be educated on the inevitability of vicarious traumatization, how to care for oneself to combat it, and how to maximize the transformative power of providing foster care.
The limited information we have about relative foster care does show that despite the lack of education and support services, relative placements tend to last longer than non-relative placements. We desperately need to create stability for these children that have been hurt through no fault of their own. All the other healing they need and deserve can only take place when they feel safe, cared for and that they belong somewhere. It seems that one way that we could increase that safety would be to provide more and earlier support for kinship care families.
What are your thoughts on this? Have you done any work in this area? Do you know of anything written about supporting kinship care families? Please click on “comment” and let me know. Thank you.