“I Needed Him As Much As He Needed Me”: A Beautiful Story of Love, Healing & Kinship
*Names changed to protect the identities of children in care.
ASCI kinship caregiver James* and his cousin (and kinship child) Charlie’s* relationship warms our hearts like marshmallows over a fire. After speaking to James about his experience caring for Charlie—and learning that despite the multiple challenges they have separately faced, they are healing and pressing forward by sticking together—it was difficult not to grab for the tissues, but easy to feel good that Charlie is exactly where he needs to be.
“He has…it, like almost makes me tear up even the thinking about it…he has the biggest heart,” James shares about Charlie, who is both turning 5 and celebrating one year with James next month. “I got a video of him talking to my girlfriend’s kids and giving them a kiss. He always wants a hug and a kiss and is saying, ‘I love you,’ and he just…he’s just so kindhearted. I don’t even know how to explain it. He’s just so special. He’s definitely one-of-a-kind, and on my bad days, he makes me see that it’s OK.”
James, a former chef and butcher, took in Charlie when he was 24 years old and stuck in a years-long cycle of recovery from a baseball attack when he was 18—a recovery fraught with multiple surgeries, new injuries and arthritis. Similar to his cousin, even at just 4 years old, Charlie is recovering from emotional trauma compounded by his numerous placements (five different homes in four years after his mother’s parental rights were unfortunately terminated). The little boy came into James’ care with some speech and anger challenges, anxiety, and—according to James—a bit of confusion about how “to kid.”
“I got a 4-year-old who’s about to be 5, and he would rather clean the house than play with toys,” James jokes. “He wants to do the dishes. He wants to run the vacuum. He wants to mop. He wants to Swiffer!”
“But my biggest challenge has probably been getting him to not be so angry and learn how to control his emotions,” James continues. “Within the first three to four months, he was biting me, kicking me, hitting me. He was throwing himself on the ground. He was hitting himself. He was pinching himself, pulling his hair…because he was just so angry. And I didn’t understand it at the time. I was getting angry, too. But I had to go back and think about everything he’s been through to understand why. And it took me a while to get him to understand that he doesn’t have to act like this, because everything is OK now.”
When James took Charlie to a UPMC clinic for children to have him evaluated, the answer turned out to be simple: Resulting from the trauma of being shuffled from home to home, he never experienced true normalcy and therefore never got the chance to simply be a child and do the things a child does—even something as fundamental as playing.
“I thought he was autistic or had some kind of mental [health condition],” James admits. “But [the doctor] said, ‘No, he just has severe anxiety because of all the trauma he’s been through.’”
Due to James’ historical injuries, he is currently unable to work, but he has recognized this as a blessing rather than a hindrance since taking responsibility for Charlie’s care. “Even if I was able to work, I wouldn’t, because he just has so much that needs [to be] addressed,” he insists. And all the extra time and patience James has been able to give Charlie has meant so much more than a paycheck.
“He just recently started calling me Dad,” James says, his emotions showing themselves in the crack in his voice. “And it makes me so happy to finally see him happy. Because I haven’t seen him this happy in, I don’t know how long. Now he loves playing with the dogs. And I bought him a bearded dragon a few months ago, so he could watch it grow up. And he enjoys playing with my girlfriend’s two little girls, 3 and 4 years old. And with him being underdeveloped, he gets along better with a 3-year-old than the 4-year-old, and [UPMC] said that’s because he was never taught stuff. He was never taught how to be a kid. That’s why I like that my girlfriend has two girls, because he can learn [from] them. And now I’ve got him in preschool, so that’s also been good. He’s actually in preschool with the 3-year-old because we didn’t want to separate them; they are like two peas in a pod.”
James continues, “He went from being super angry to being the happiest, goofiest little boy. He’s learned to control his temper, and his attitude has gotten better. And he’s playing more, like playing with toys and wants to draw. It’s like his creative side has come out.”
Even without the success of Charlie’s wonderful progress, there is no doubt that James would go back and make the same decision to become his caregiver, even despite his own struggle to “grow up.”
“I put myself into [the situation]. Because it was either take him or let him lose his family,” he explains adamantly. “I had to make a decision on the spot. I knew I could give him the life he deserves and the love he should be receiving. But it was kind of rough, because I was a 24-year-old just trying to live my life, not expecting to have kids right now, and I had to change my life around. But by the same point, I’m happy, because [before that] I was out drinking all the time. And that’s not who I wanted to be, because my dad is a bad alcoholic. Charlie…he made me see him as the bigger picture, to see that there’s more to life than just going out and partying.”
As we have seen countless times in kinship families, while people in the outside world may assume it’s a burden taking a child into your home unexpectedly and rearranging your life, there are so many reasons it can change your life for the better, too, in so many ways. And it’s been no different for James.
“I hadn’t really realized how much [he] meant to me and how much it really hit me, until he spent three days at my mom’s house and I sat in his bed crying because I missed him,” James admits. “I didn’t expect this. I didn’t plan on it, but I needed him as much as he needed me. And he opened my eyes and made me almost have a more clear vision of…like, yes, bad things will happen, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be bad forever. My mom says we are a blessing to each other. And now that I’m further into things, I realize that I do want to be a dad.”
Perhaps one of the most beautiful parts of their story is that Charlie still gets to have a relationship with his birth mom. James and she grew up very close and, despite losing her parental rights to a longtime battle with substance use, remain very close to this day while he parents Charlie. As we know, personal struggle does not equate to not loving your children.
“She still sends me money for him if she’s got it, and she doesn’t have to,” James offers. Charlie’s mom comes to visit him, and James and his girlfriend would like her visits to increase in frequency. “She has always been the one that’s always helped me out and always been there for me, even though she does have her issues,” he says.
As long as she is not under the influence, James encourages her to visit Charlie at home several times a week, because James understands firsthand the importance of family even when it doesn’t look perfect. “I hate saying this, but I was a daddy’s girl growing up,” shares James, who is transitioning from female to male. “I was all about my dad. My dad taught me everything I know. My dad made me the chef I am today. Even though he has [messed] up and done so much wrong, I appreciate everything [good] he has done.”
“And that’s why I appreciate [Charlie’s mom],” he continues. “She doesn’t have to be here, [but she is], and my girlfriend and I want her to be here more.”
Let’s pause to make an obvious statement: Raising children is hard. With all the preparation, resources and support in the world for a child who has lived a perfect life and experienced zero trauma, raising children is hard. Envision yourself in the position of kinship caregivers like James and you’ll realize raising children can be even harder when it’s entirely unexpected and the effects of trauma are involved.
This is why, James shares, it is so important for caregivers to educate themselves on the details of a child’s case to better understand their trauma; surround themselves with a network of support; and practice patience on top of patience.
“I would tell [other caregivers] to make sure they know as much about the child’s past as possible, because you can’t take care of somebody who is traumatized or has problems without knowing why they’re there,” James explains. “And if you don’t have people who are going to back you up and support you and cheer you on, then it’s gonna be so much harder, because it takes a toll.”
“And it takes a lot of patience, and it can be very frustrating and overwhelming,” he continues. “But at the same time, it’s so worth it. And in a way, he’s made me grow up and he’s made me realize how much love you can feel for and from a kid, and it feels so amazing having someone look up to you and having someone depend on you. It’s just so worth it to see them go from being so miserable to being so happy. It’s inspiring and it’s amazing to watch.”
James is currently seeking to adopt Charlie and officially become his dad for life. We wish them all the love and happiness this life has to offer—the love and happiness they have already found in each other.