The life cycle we are taught to believe in may not always go according to plan.
We are born.
If we are lucky, we are nurtured and cared for by loving caretakers. Through their nurturing acts, we learn to trust and attach. We play, as children and learn to navigate our world. When we reach our teens, however, we race like thoroughbreds towards adulthood with the promise of true independence at the finish line.
As adults, we begin working to maintain this independence. Some of us marry, and have children of our own. We tend to pattern our parenting styles as we were parented and thus begins the cycle.
We raise our own children to become adults themselves. They leave the nest to begin achieving their own independent goals.
Now we can rest. As older adults, we no longer have to be all things to all people. We can finally focus on living our golden years in peace and balance.
That’s the dream. But is it the reality?
A phenomenon that grows every single year involves grandparents raising their grand and even great grandchildren due to absent or addicted adult children. Since 2009, the rate of grandparents raising their grandchildren, increased by 7%. There are currently 2.7 million adults, looking forward towards their golden years of self reflection and enjoyment, who had to bravely step back into the the fray of primary parenthood. What is even more concerning is the fact that about 1/5 of these grandparents report income falling below the poverty line.
While there are multiple dynamics surrounding the phenomenon, the rise of drug use continues to be a major factor. Rather than reiterate all the statistics surrounding the consequences of drug use to children and families, I want to shine a light on the consequences for the extended family. Why burden grandparents with raising children full of grief and trauma over abuse and the loss of their primary parents?
The basic truth lies within this fact: multiple research studies indicate that children who are removed from their parents fare better emotionally and psychologically when cared for by committed, nurturing relatives…even those who cannot provide all the things a child might receive in a foster home. One such study conducted by the Annie E Casey Foundation concluded that compared to kids in the general foster care system, children placed in kinship care adjust better “and are less likely to experience behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders.”
This is not a tirade against the foster care system or foster parents. On any given day there are approximately 438,000 children in the US alone being cared for by foster parents. They sacrifice so much every day to help children to address trauma and to feel normal.
This is a challenge to social workers to recognize the need to not only double our efforts to find relatives for our traumatized children, but also to support those older adults, aunts, uncles and grandparents who want to provide care for the dependent children in their family.
I have seen young social workers dismiss a caring and competent family member due to their income. This decision was not made with malice, but with a maladaptive belief that what the state could provide through foster care would allow the child to enjoy more opportunities. I have also hear workers posit that if relatives really loved their children, they would not ask for help.
I challenge anyone to be asked to take on 2 to 3 additional (traumatized) children without experiencing a thought of the hardship that goes with it. Yet these relatives push through and accept the children, only to really face the greatest hardship later. When the “honeymoon” period wears off and the trauma surfaces these older relatives are left alone to cope. With no support, these children are often relinquished back to the system, compounding the trauma and rejection felt by the child.
How can these children be better served? After all, isnt that our prime directive: to protect children, preserve families and promote function and well being? There are some things we can do, in relation to this issue, that increases relative placement stability.
1. Change our assessment criteria.
Dont rule out relatives due to their income, their meager belongings or their reticence to take on another family. Of course their living situation must be safe, but they can parent adequately in a safe environment whether it be a house, an apartment or even a mobile home. Be honest with them about the cost incurred by them as a result of taking on more children: electricity, water, gas and food. Help them to understand the trauma behavior they are likely to observe, giving them resources for addressing these behaviors. When you take the time necessary to have a full, honest discussion, you will be more prepared to help the relatives articulate where and how they will need support.
2. Support the Relatives
Some agencies are able to provide case management services to relative caregivers, which allows them to receive hard and soft services when they need it.
Many states now offer kinship guardianship to relatives which actually provides them with a monthly stipend to support their care of the children.
Whatever your agency allows, support is what is needed to maintain a stable living sutuation.
3. Be aware of Local Resources
Besides the monetary support, grandparents who take on these children also experience loss. They lose their plans and dreams for which they anticipated as they entered their golden years. Loving and providing for their relatives, they understand the sacrifice to be made. But every sacrifice comes at a cost. Dealing with traumatized youth exacts a toll. They need emotional support from others on the same path.
Be familiar with resources in your area so that you may refer these grandparents to a place of support. This type of support can be even more important than monetary help.
In Alabama, for example, one website, grandfamilies.org has information on the topic of becoming primary caregiver for grandchildren. The site also list local contact information for support groups. Most states and local agencies (even churches) have support programs. Familiarize yourself with what is in your area.
As a social worker, upon each child removal, we must make it a priority to search diligently for competent and nurturing relatives. But accept that after finding a match, our job will have just begun. Let’s commit to doing all that is in our power to support that relative. A child’s emotional well being hangs in the balance. And that should be the only motivator we ever need.