Kinship Caregivers helps families faced with parenting again
WORTHINGTON -- Kinship or relative caregiving is not a new story. From the Bible's Esther, who was raised by her cousin Mordecai, to Harry Potter, who was raised by his aunt and uncle Vernon and Petunia Dursl, relatives have often stepped in to raise children not their own.
There have always been countless reasons people other than parents care for children. While the reasons for kinship caregivers remain varied, there are overarching issues that tend to be similar -- legal, financial and emotional complications.
"All the children in relative care share common denominators --substance abuse and mental illness are usually the reasons why children end up living with caregivers," said Kris LaFleur, Family Support Specialist at Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association. "Of course there are lots of other factors too, including incarceration, treatment and abandonment."
According to census figures, the number of grandparents caring for grandchildren on a permanent basis has doubled in the past 10 years. Minnesota currently ranks sixth as the fastest-growing state with kinship families.
However, public awareness of kinship care, defined as relatives or close family friends caring for dependent children, remains somewhat minimal.
Relative care arrangements can be informal and simply a product of an agreement between family members, or they can be formal and facilitated within the child welfare system.
After 28 years of marriage, Jane and Steve Smith of the Minneapolis area recognized the mother of their two nieces, ages 9 and 11, was no longer fit to care for the girls.
Because of current legal proceedings regarding the care of their two nieces, Jane and Steve asked that pseudonyms be used and identifying details be omitted.
"Very few people know how many people are being raised (by relatives) throughout the state," said Jane.
The Smiths had been aware of the mother's problem for years, but "we didn't know the extent of it," explained Jane.
She was struggling "emotionally, mentally, relationally etc.," Jane said, and the whole family could see how negatively it was effecting her two daughters, both adopted from Latin American countries.
The extended family originally hoped that with their help, the mother would be able to gain control of her life again and be able to care for her daughters, but "in the middle of that process, it fell apart," Jane said.
Police were contacted, and the full extent of the trouble at home -- which by then included domestic violence -- became clear, with the two young girls stuck in the middle.
With no children of their own, Jane and Steve suddenly found themselves parenting two pre-teenagers, initially on a temporary basis.
"But within 90 days, it was clear that we needed to explore the possibilities of looking after the children on a full-time basis," Jane said.
The mother was aware she was unable to care for her daughters and agreed to give Jane and Steve a custody consent agreement, allowing them full legal and physical custody of the children.
"It was difficult for the girls and challenging for us. I think we all would readily admit that," Jane said.
As adopted children living with their aunt and uncle, the two girls are in a situation so unique that none of their peers can relate to what they are experiencing.
They have recently begun seeing their mother again during supervised visits, said Jane. The older girl is receptive to building a relationship with her mother, but her younger sister isn't ready yet.
"We're aunt and uncle, but also Dad and Mom," Jane said, "But, we make it clear that they have one mom. They love their mom and we encourage that. At the same time, we talk freely that there has been great challenges and there can be great trouble and challenges with your parent while you love them deeply."
While Jane said she and Steve have been lucky to find strong support from their friends and family, the lack of awareness about relative caregiving leaves many feeling isolated.
In addition to connecting caregivers with support groups, the Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association, Minneapolis, offers resources to kinship caregivers to help them adjust to having new children in their home.
Relative caregivers often face financial, legal and relational challenges.
"We do a lot of phone counseling and connecting people with resources -- legal resources like attorneys, legal aid and law clinic -- anything we can do to help people maintain good, legal relationships," said LaFleur.
The Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association also runs a "warmline" for people to call and receive help.
"The calls are so different," said LaFleur. "Sometimes they need educational resources if the child has special needs, or family mediations to bring people together and develop parenting plans between parents, caretakers and the child.
"One of the big problems most relative caregivers face is that they feel isolated, like they are alone, but relative care is gaining more attention," LaFleur added.
Locally, the nearest support group in Minnesota is in Marshall.
"We meet once a month on the third Thursday, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the Marshall YMCA," said Nancy Vierstraete, a Western Community Action case worker and the facilitator of R.O.C.K. (Raising Our Children's Kids).
The group usually has four to five families in attendance, and Vierstraete has also noticed a rise in relative caregivers in southwest Minnesota.
Speakers are often asked to address the group, with county workers and lawyers visiting the group at least once a year.
The Marshall support group has also worked through a curriculum, "The Second Time Around," said Vierstraete.
The Marshall support group can be reached at 1-800-658-2448, and the Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association's warmline can be reached at 1-877-917-4640.
Daily Globe Reporter Alyson Buschena may be reached at 376-7322.