Vol. 3, No. 1 Fall 1998
Face Major Changes
Mary has mixed feelings. Since taking
physical custody of her four-year-old grandson Jonathan, her life has
Mary's initial decision to care for Jonathan
came easy to her. Her daughter, Rochelle, had been involved with drugs
and in and out of trouble for years. Finally, DSS removed Jonathan from
Rochelle's care due to neglect. Before placing Jonathan with a foster
family, DSS asked Mary if she would be willing to take care of Jonathan
full time until her could be reunited with Rochelle. She didn't hesitate.
Although we wouldn't go back and change
her decision, Mary has found caring for Jonathan an extremely rewarding
but stressful task. She never imagined that she would be parenting a
child at her age. Three years from retirement, Mary had planned on doing
some traveling and becoming involved in community activities. Now these
plans are on hold.
Mary is resentful at times because she
feels her "golden years" are being taken from her. Later,
she feels guilty for having these thoughts. She thinks, "I should
just accept this responsibility without complaining. After all, I'm
doing it for my grandson, and the situation isn't his fault.
grandmother in the fictional case example above, is a kinship foster
parent. Like many other grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings.
Mary's life has been dramatically altered by her decision to care for
the children of family members. The work kinship caregivers do is truly
a labor of love.
Many children find the transitions
associated with foster care to handle when they are placed with relatives.
Because he was allowed to live with his grandmother, Jonathan is spared
the stress of having to move in with strangers and start new relationships
from scratch. Since Jonathan already has a relationship with Mary, his
transition into foster care is easier. In fact, remaining with his family
is likely to help Jonathan maintain his sense of identity--he'll feel
less like a foster child, less a part of "the system."
When custody is returned to Rochelle, Jonathan's
transition out of foster care will be easier, since his foster mother
(Mary) will still be an active part of his life. Most importantly, he
is spared the pain and grief many children face when they must say good-bye
to a foster family, never to see them again.
Families who become kinship foster families
also face many challenges. Each family member must struggle to
learn a new identity and define a new role for themselves. As
this process is taking place, miscommunication, frustration, guilt,
and resentment sometimes occur.
Kinship arrangements often
spare kids the stress of having to move in with strangers and
start new relationships from scratch.
Take, for instance, the family in the case
example. For Mary, the decision to become involved was made in order
to help Rochelle, and to avoid having Jonathan taken from the family.
In spite of her good intentions, it's very natural for Mary to feel
some resentment, guilt, and disappointment.
Generally, kinship caregivers have reached
a point in their lives where they've raised their own children and now
finally have a little extra time and money. Any plans to travel, take
a class, or volunteer in the community must be put on hold. They are
back to raising children again. They may feel overwhelmed as they look
at the huge task in front of them, and the time, energy, and resources
it will take to be a "parent" to this child.
Birth parents must also cope with changes
in their roles. Initially, Rochelle is relieved that her mother can
take Jonathan. Rochelle can concentrate on her treatment without worrying
about Jonathan's safety in an unfamiliar home.
But eventually Rochelle begins to feel displaced.
She feels as if she is no longer the mother. During her weekly visits
with Jonathan at DSS, Rochelle notices that he relates to Mary as his
mother more and more. Rochelle feels jealous of the attention Mary gets
from Jonathan. She can't believe her mother would take her place like
this! For her part, Mary can't understand Rochelle's anger or believe
how ungrateful she is.
In most kinship situations, the scenario is
similar: life stages and roles get mixed up. Since their roles have
changed, individuals in the family must learn new ways to relate to
each other. For the sake of everyone involved, it's important that all
family members deal with these stressors. Communication is key. If everyone
is able to talk about positive and negative feelings, a lot of resentment
can be prevented.
It's also crucial that the kinship caregiver
have some type of support system. Family members, clergy, and support
groups can remind foster caregivers that they are not alone. Many counties
have support groups for grandparents raising their grandchildren. By
offering a place to share information, solutions, and feelings with
peers going through the same experiences, these groups can help tremendously.
Other effective resources, such as parenting
classes, mental health services, or respite, can be located by contacting
the local DSS or mental health agencies. The AARP Grandparent Information
Center (202/434-2296) offers a wealth of information on legal, social,
health, and financial issues affecting grandparent caregivers.
Michelle Linberger is a Foster Care Consultant
with Methodist Home for Children in Wilmington, North Carolina.
2000 Jordan Institute for Families