Kinship care options and advice for grandparents of kids in the child-welfare system
By Cathleen J. Newbanks
The Fostering Connections Act (2009) mandates that child-welfare workers locate and contact relatives within 30 days of a child being removed from the custody of their parent(s). Research has shown that children removed from their family home do better when placed with a relative with whom they have a history and a positive relationship rather than in a foster home that is unknown to them. But navigating the child-welfare system can be challenging for grandparents or other family members, and kinship care often leaves kinship caregivers with unexpected legal and financial issues.
Clearly, government was not intended to parent. Yet, the foster care system is set up to do just that. Placement with relatives takes government out of the parenting role, but leaves many kinship families with unplanned legal and financial responsibilities. Clearly, placement with family allows children to return to their roots, but much work is needed to develop appropriate support for kinship caregivers in caring for these children.
QUESTION: What choices exist when relatives are asked by child welfare to care for their related child?
ANSWER: The options vary depending on whether the child is already in foster care.
For children not in foster care: Relatives can accept the child into their home without the child entering the foster care system. The relative can provide this care as a formal legal guardian/custodian or as an informal caregiver while waiting for the parent to resume caregiving. Child Protective Services (CPS) may ask a relative about their willingness to care for the child to avoid foster care placement.
For children in foster care (custody option): Relatives can accept the child into their home short-term without any custody transfer so the relative can decide what they wish to do long-term. Some courts and agencies will allow this but not all. Relatives can also accept the child into their home long-term and ask for legal custody of the child or may share legal custody with the agency or parent. Relatives should ask the caseworker what legal custody options are available in their state and may also want to consult an attorney to understand options for custody.
For children in foster care (foster parenting option): Relatives can also accept the child into their home and become licensed/approved as a foster parent. The relatives must meet the state’s requirements for becoming a foster parent, which include criminal background checks on all adults in the home and home visits as well as possible training. As a foster parent, the relative should have input into agency decisions regarding the child but the agency will make the ultimate decisions. This agency can also decide whether the child will continue to be placed with the relative.
For children in foster care (adoption option): If parental rights have been terminated, relatives can apply to become adoptive parents of a relative’s child in the foster-care system. The relatives will be required to meet all requirements of their state’s home-study and adoption process. When children are in foster care, they often qualify for adoption assistance. This is determined on a case-by-case basis and is based on laws in their state.
Each option means something different in terms of on-going agency and court involvement, reimbursement for the child’s expenses, the role of the child’s parents in the child’s life, and future decisions about the child’s permanent home. For each of these options, these follow-up questions should be asked:
- What role will the agency play in my and the child’s life? Will agency staff visit the child and me? How often? What is the purpose of the visit?
- Will the court be involved? Why? How? What is expected of me at court hearings? How long will the court be involved?
- How will the child’s parents be involved? Do the parents still have rights? What are they? What is expected of me in terms of the parents’ involvement in the child’s life?
- What benefits are available for the care of the child? Will I get a monthly payment? What about food stamps, medical insurance for the child, childcare costs? What if the child needs services like counseling – will it be provided?
QUESTION: If I do not take the child into my home when I am asked, what will happen if I change my mind later and want him or her live with me?
ANSWER: Agencies are required by law to notify relatives that a child has been removed from the birth parents’ home within 30 days of the removal. At that time, the agency may ask the relative to take responsibility for the child on a temporary basis during the child protective services (CPS) investigation. If the relative is not able to take responsibility for the child, the agency may either look for another relative or place the child with a non-relative foster parent.
If you decide after the child is placed with a foster parent that you are able to care for your relative’s child, the agency must consider the child’s bond with the foster parent and the best interest of the child in making a placement change.
QUESTION: If I do not take the child into my home but want to have a relationship with the child, can I?
ANSWER: Agencies (and courts) vary in how they handle this issue. Maintaining family ties is important for children, and much of the federal legislation in recent years addresses the importance of finding relatives and of supporting the relatives’ ties to the child. Agencies and courts will consider whether it is in the child’s best interests for the relative to have ongoing communication and contact with the relative. Relatives should ask about the kind of contact allowed and make it clear what kind of contact they want to have with the child. Be specific and be willing to negotiate. Foster parents are usually open to having relatives participate in the life of the child. Many agencies are agreeable to the foster parent and the relative working out the details of the ongoing contact. So reaching out to the foster parents and discussing what works for them as well is a good place to start.
QUESTION: What if the parents decide to surrender their parental rights to the child when the child is taken into custody by the child welfare agency and I am called by the agency to take the child? What options exist for me, and how much time do I have to decide what to do?
ANSWER: When parents voluntarily give up their parental rights, the child usually becomes eligible for adoption. The relative may have a very limited time period to decide what to do, since the goal will be to place the child with an adoptive family. The relative should ask the agency caseworker how much time there is to decide and what options exist. The relative may also want to explore taking the child in temporarily while deciding what to do next. However, the agency may or may not agree to such a temporary placement, so it is important to understand the agency’s expectations as quickly as possible.
Relatives will usually have options such as adoption, guardianship/legal custody of the child, or becoming a relative foster parent. The financial and services supports available to the child’s relative vary, depending on which options are available and whether the child is in foster care. In many states, if the parents surrender their parental rights, relatives may petition the court to adopt the child.
Adoption assistance may be available if the child is eligible. Eligibility for adoption assistance is linked to many different factors, such as:
- Is the child a special needs child as defined by your state’s child welfare plan?
- Is the child currently in foster care?
- Is the child SSI eligible?
In most states, some financial and services support is available if the relative takes guardianship or legal custody of a blood relative’s child. In many states, this support is limited to a monthly stipend from Temporary Assistance for Needy Children (TANF), Medicaid, child care, and free school lunches/breakfast. This is usually based only on the child’s personal income and not that of the caregiving relative or the birth parents. Some states also offer subsidized guardianship when certain criteria are met.
It is a good idea for the relative to discuss the options available in their state with a benefits counselor and/or an attorney. Many states also have formal meetings to discuss and make decisions as to where the child will live and who will provide long-term care for the child. These meetings, commonly referred to as “Team Decision-Making” or “Family Partnership Meetings,” bring together family members, the child (if age appropriate), agency staff, and other supportive individuals to strategize about how everyone can help meet the child’s needs. Relatives should certainly ask about the availability of such a meeting, because the information shared can help the relative make an informed decision.
QUESTION: What are some of the documents and other items I should ask for when taking responsibility of a child from the child welfare system?
ANSWER: While every child and situation is different, in general, regardless of whether you foster, adopt, or legally take custody of a relative’s child from foster care or child protective services, you should ask for the following:
- Legal documents that explain your official relationship with the child as a caregiver, such as a foster care placement agreement (if you are fostering), letters of guardianship, or a custody or adoption order.
- Medical records the agency may have acquired while responsible for the child.
- School records that document the child’s progress and any special educational needs, such as an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP).
- Any clinical or therapeutic progress notes or diagnostic testing the child may have had while in care.
- Names and numbers of any previous placements or relatives who want to stay in touch with the child.
- Names and contact information of friends with whom the child may want to stay in touch.
QUESTION: What issues are likely to surface as a result of a child being removed from a parent’s home or of the child coping with the effects of abuse or neglect?
ANSWER: It is important to understand that most children are removed from their parents’ home as a result of neglect. Neglect can be the result of a parent’s willful neglect, a lack of knowledge about caring for a child, or conditions that render the birth parent unable to properly care for a child. While we tend to think of the severely abused child when we hear “child protective services or foster care,” it is important to note that neglect, too, can create severe scars on the physical and emotional health of a child.
Children who are survivors of abuse, neglect, or abandonment may have significant issues in the areas of trust, respect, socialization, and bonding. The field of research in caring for children in child welfare has favored the treatment term “trauma-informed care.” The process of identifying a child’s need for trauma-informed parenting/care, seeking services, and participating in the therapeutic process are key steps in becoming a trauma-informed parent to the child in your care.
No matter the reason that has brought the child into the child-welfare system, the child has likely faced some level of trauma and has some need for trauma-informed care, even if all they need is support through the grief and loss process. Nearly every child in child welfare will need assistance through the grieving process. The losses they have experienced in their young lives are significant. Because every person handles grief differently, it is important to work with a therapist to understand the best approach to support a child through the grieving process.
QUESTION: What are some signs that a child may require trauma-informed care?
ANSWER: Trauma will impact children differently and at different times. For the most part, you may expect a child to need trauma-informed parenting and care if any of the following apply:
- He or she has been in an unsafe or unstable home environment for long periods of time.
- He or she has experienced a long-term separation from family, including the birth parent who may have been responsible for the abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
- He or she has been the victim of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.
- He or she has witnessed domestic violence.
Children who have survived these situations and are experiencing trauma as a result of them may continually demonstrate the following symptoms:
- Anger, irritability, or mood swings
- Sadness, depression, or regression
- Withdrawal from friends, family, or typical childhood social interactions
- Anxiety, helplessness, fear, guilt, self-loathing/blaming themselves, or difficulty in concentrating;
- In severe cases of child sexual abuse, some children may begin starting fires
The child may also have physical symptoms of trauma:
- Physical injury from physical abuse
- Muscle stress
- Enuresis (bed-wetting)
QUESTION: If I suspect the child requires trauma-informed care and parenting, what can I do?
ANSWER: If you have a temporary or foster care arrangement with social services, then you are encouraged to approach the child’s social services worker and ask for an assessment and services for the child as well as parent training to help you better care for the child and to meet the child’s needs.
If you have adopted the child, then you are encouraged to approach the child’s adoption worker in much the same way as you would if the child was in your temporary or foster care.
If you have taken legal custody of the child, you will likely need to seek out services and support for the child on your own. If the child has Medicaid, most states will have a directory of therapists accepting Medicaid. When calling the therapist, it is up to you to determine if that therapist is trained in trauma-informed care and can meet the child’s needs.
Questions you may want to consider after you meet with a therapist include:
- Did the therapist suggest conducting an assessment to determine the level and type of trauma and how it has impacted the child?
- Did the therapist have an understanding of the family relationship you have with the child and show you compassion and respect for the responsibility you have accepted?
- Did the therapist explain the type of therapeutic approach they generally use in these situations, and were you comfortable with that approach?
Here are some forms of trauma-informed therapy that therapists may discuss with you.
Somatic Experiencing is a therapeutic process that begins by helping the person get in touch with how they are feeling at the time and until they have the ability to release the traumatic tension.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) uses a therapeutic cueing to back and forth eye movements, which helps to “unfreeze” the person from the trauma. This is a cognitive-behavioral approach that has been extensively researched with war veterans.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy will help the person process and think about the traumatic experiences; it is typically combined with other therapeutic approaches to help the person heal from the trauma.
QUESTION: Until I am able to find a therapist for the child, what can I do to help her or him?
ANSWER: Help the child find a place for him/herself in your home. In providing responsibilities as well as privileges, the child may begin to feel a part of your home. That sense of stability and connection can help throughout the therapeutic process as well as in daily life.
Give the child permission to verbally express her or his feelings to you. Encourage a child who is able to write to keep a diary of how he or she is feeling. The child may want to write letters to an old friend, an imaginary friend, Santa Claus, or the parent. If the child is interested in writing letters to express her or his feelings, work with the child to create a mailbox outside your room or elsewhere in the house where they can deliver their letters. Promise to read the letters and to talk with the child about the letters — when the child is ready. Set up a time to discuss with the child the feelings he or she has shared with you, but be flexible. Our feelings don’t run by the calendar or the clock, and neither do children’s feelings.
As a trauma-informed parent, your patience will be tried. Sometimes, you may feel lost or powerless, and much stress comes with accepting this new responsibility. So seek out local, state, or national support organizations. These organizations, such as the National Kinship Alliance for Children (also known as the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights), can offer support from others who have experienced caring for a relative’s child. Peer support can be one of the most freeing and healing experiences you can have for yourself. It is important that you take time to care for yourself as the caregiver. If you need help, please contact us — the National Kinship Alliance for Children (formerly, the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights).
Cathleen J. Newbanks, MA, is the Executive Director of both the National Kinship Alliance for Children (formerly the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights) and FACES of Virginia Families: Foster, Adoption, and Kinship Association. She has 24 years of experience as a public and private administrator in human service and is a proud grandmother of five grandchildren.
We also appreciate the following internet resources, which helped to inform this article:
GeorgetownUniversity’s Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation
New York Kinship Navigator Program: helping relatives raising relative children in New YorkState
Sidran: A private foundation and service center specializing in trauma-informed care