How do you define kinship care? First you must answer the question “What is a family?”
The last generation has seen many changes in how “family” is defined: from largely extended families to a nuclear two-parent, two-child household, to an extension that includes close friends and neighbors.
Like the word “family,” the term “kinship” has also evolved. For many years, kinship care was mostly defined as a legal custody arrangement in which a grandparent is raising his or her grandchild.
As Gerard Wallace, a national expert on kinship care, says, “Kinship care is much broader than how many of us understand it. It’s not just grandparents who have legal custody of their grandchildren. In fact, many grandparents as well as aunts, uncles and older siblings are part of an informal system of care that is a national resource for our children. As the original child welfare system, it is a natural and effective alternative for families in crisis.”
Kinship care is not exclusive of the absent parents. Many times the parents are not absent, but by circumstances those parents are unable to fully care for their child. Whether due to substance abuse, incarceration, immigration status, physical or mental illness, or simply tough economic times, parents today continue to need the support of their extended family.
Success for the children in kinship care includes the whole family – the kinship caregivers, whether grandparents or other relatives, and the parents themselves. A large body of research tells us that children do best when surrounded by families who love and support them – and that the bond between child and parent is critical for brain development and long-term success in school, relationships and career.
Kinship families face special challenges, from issues of school enrollment and access to health care to the exceptional dynamics of the kincaregiver-parent-child relationship. Support cannot be offered solely to the grandparent or other relative caregiver, but must address the needs of the children, parents and other key players in the child’s life.
As a nation, we must begin to understand that the bond between children and their parents is not something that can be replaced by kinship care, but kinship care can play an important role in rebuilding, maintaining and enhancing that relationship. As difficult as it is sometimes, we must set aside the negative understanding of unwilling or incapable parents, and instead take a view from all sides and do what is best for the children.
Michelle Gross is Director of Operations for the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights.
National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights
Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare
HSC Level 2, Room 093
Stony Brook, NY 11794
Michelle Gross: [email protected]