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When Family Ties Turn Into Entanglements:
Relatives Raising Children

By  Judy Paschalis

 

It’s not an isolated situation — in fact, it’s quite common to find grandparents and other relatives raising children in their extended families.  In Ohio, it’s estimated that 10 percent of the households with children under 18 years of age have grandparents as the primary caregivers of the children, according to research by Ohio Department on Aging and Bowling Green State University.  And that’s just grandparents. Other relatives— aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters – have also taken on the parenting in many families.  Some who work with “kinship families,” as they’re called, say they think the 10 percent figure is conservative.

More often than not, the children living with relatives came to live with their grandparents or aunts or uncles without the involvement of a child welfare agency.   In other words, grandmother went to visit and found the house a mess, the kids alone, and Mom and Dad nowhere to be seen.  Grandma packed up the kids and they’ve been with her ever since. 

For most relatives who are thrust into raising children, it’s a complex and, many times, bewildering situation – the family ties have turned into entanglements.

It’s complex for many reasons, not the least of which are the guilt and anger that occur when grandparents must step-in because their own children cannot or will not take care of their offspring. Imagine it’s your adult child who would rather go out partying than take proper care of the baby.

The primary reason children are being raised by relatives is drug and alcohol abuse by the birth parents.  This leads to neglect, if not outright abuse, of the children.  (Death, illness, domestic violence, unemployment and teen pregancy are also reasons, but substance abuse overwhelmingly tops the list.)

Naturally, these neglected children also are filled with complex emotions.  They are most likely angry and may feel that the situation is their fault. Most of all, they are deeply confused, sad and depressed by what is essentially abandonment by their parents.  These feelings lead to temper tantrums, inability to focus, aggressive behaviors and other problems such as trouble making friends and achieving in school.  Also, many of the children have learning disabilities or delays because of the chaotic life they have led, or because they have physical disabilities such as fetal alcohol effects, or deficits because they were not nourished properly or stimulated as infants.

The situation quickly becomes bewildering because the grandparents, or other relatives, may not have legal papers that would entitle them to enroll children in school or obtain health care for the children.  Finding legal advice from an affordable attorney and also from an attorney who is well-versed in the law that is involved in kinship families is not easy.  These legal difficulties often drive relative caregivers “underground” and this is one of the main reasons that those who work with kinship families think there are far more kinship families than the research shows.

Finances also are an issue.  Financial assistance and health insurance for the children may be available from public agencies for the children; however, even with this assistance, many relatives find the extra people in the household really squeezes the budget, to say nothing of the crowding that may occur in the house itself.

But all these difficulties pale beside the stress that the family “entanglements” cause the caregiver and children. 

Caregivers have told the following:   the children’s birth mom will tell the five grandkids they don’t have to do what the grandmother says because she (the grandmother) is not their mom; the child’s birth mom will tell the child she’s coming to visit that afternoon, but never shows up; the children’s parents will threaten to call the public child serving agency and get the agency to “take” the kids if the caregivers don’t do what the birth parents say; the birth parents will refuse to cooperate with custody papers and, therefore, necessitate the caregivers hiring an attorney; and, on and on.

It certainly is true that some birth parents bow out of the picture and let the relative caregivers establish a stable home for their children.  But at the very least, most caregivers have stress connected with the very fact that it is adult members of their own families who are choosing not to care properly for the children.  And, of course, the relatives worry about the birth parents’ substance abuse, lack of employment, violence and all the numerous things that accompany dysfunction.

The Positives of Kinship Caregiving

Given all the above, is there anything positive about being a kinship family.  YES!

No doubt, grandparents and other relatives would prefer to have the birth parents taking good care of the children; but, since they are not, the grandparents often feel they have no other choice but to step in to do the parenting and it’s not all bad.

Many relative caregivers are natural nurturers.  They are very happy to have the “pitter patter of little feet” in the house. 

The relatives may find they worry less about the children when they are living with them.  They know what the kids are doing, with whom and when.

Some simply enjoy children and enjoy participating in the activities that involve children – sports, scouts, coloring, reading stories, children’s movies, etc.The relatives may realize that they have special skills such as teaching, carpentry, music, cooking  and other talents that they can pass along to the children.

Because of their life experiences and maturity, they may be well-equipped to help a child grow in all ways, including spiritually.

On some level, the grandparents may feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are “making up” for the mistakes they made with their own children. They may feel that this is their chance to “do things right.”  They know that they are providing a safe, orderly, drug-free environment for their grandchildren.

And, happily, sometimes, the relatives see a change in the birth parents that leads to the children being able to live with their biological parents.

One Community’s Response

For the more than 6,000 families in Lucas County in northwestern Ohio, in which relatives are raising children, the Kinship Navigator Program exists to guide them to services.  The Program is sponsored by the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio, Inc., located in Toledo, with funding from Lucas County Job & Family Services and the Family Caregiver Support Program. 

Most of the kinship famlies locally and throughout the nation are “informal” arrangements, meaning they have had no contact with the courts or any child-serving agency.  However, Lucas County Children Services does place many children with relatives.  Both the Kinship Navigator Program and Lucas County Children Services refer families to each other’s services as appropriate and both sponsor education and training programs for kinship families to which all families are referred.

The Kinship Navigator Program guides relatives to:

  •  Financial assistance from Job & Family Services, regardless of the family’s income;
  • Health care coverage for the children, regardless of the family’s income;
  • Legal advice and counsel;
  • Behavior counseling and parenting advice;
  • Recreation and enrichment activities and programs; and,
  • Education and support.

The Kinship Navigator Program also facilitates a monthly educational/support meeting which features a free light supper and programs for adults, teens, elementary-aged children and toddlers.

Most professionals who work with children agree that placing children with family members is a response by government that serves the families and the taxpayers well.  It is far less costly, in terms of tax dollars, to have children in “kinship families” than in foster care; and, most professionals agree that, in general, the children will do better when living with members of their own families.  With the help of the Kinship Navigator Program, many caregivers are able to find ways to not only take care of the children, but to take care of themselves also.

Top Ten Reasons It’s Not All Bad With Children In the House

  1. You’ve started to laugh out loud again.
  2. You know you are doing the best you can to take care of the children in your family.
  3. Attending the kids’ baseball games is fun and keeps you young.
  4. Because the children are living with you, you know they’re safe and are being kept with family and not in foster care.
  5. You’re getting a lot more exercise.
  6. You’re sleeping a lot better.
  7. Ice-cream cones are once again an after dinner treat.
  8. You know that 56 is the answer to 7 times 8 without having to pause to think.
  9. You really do love having the kids around.
  10. Your caregiving may be the single most important reason that the children will grow up with positive outlooks and armed with the ability to lead productive lives.

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