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Kinship Family Helps Autistic Niece Defy Presumed Limits & Flourish

*Names changed to protect confidentiality of those in care.

Did you know that many children enter foster care due to their intricate medical needs? According to David Mandell, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research, caregivers are less equipped to raise foster youth with special needs due to limited resources.

Because special-needs children in the child welfare system face unique challenges, reaching permanency can be difficult. Children with disabilities also “experience more frequent termination of their parents’ rights, and fewer are reunified with their parents or placed with kin.” As such, these children tend to experience longer waits for adoption and are often faced with the detriment of aging out of the system. The longer special-needs children remain in foster care, the longer they may have to wait before their conditions are evaluated or managed.

Luckily, Lisa’s* story is one that beats the odds! Lisa, who is severely autistic, is under the legal guardianship of her family members Rick Sr.* (her great-great uncle) and Rick Jr.* The pair, along with Rick Sr.’s late wife, raised not only their seven biological children, but also four cousins who were in need of a home.

After seeing her featured on a news program in Pittsburgh, Lisa’s father contacted the family with hopes of securing her a home. They immediately contacted the news program and took the necessary steps to bring Lisa into their home.

“Initially, we were all unsure how it would work, because my parents were aging and my mom had a back injury, and we knew taking on Lisa would be a lot of work, but since she’s been here, everyone fell in love with her,” Rick Jr. tells ASCI. “Everyone gets along with her, even my nieces and nephews, little kids, toddlers…they try to play and interact with her.”

Unfortunately, less than a year after Lisa joined their family, Rick Sr.’s wife (Lisa’s primary caregiver) passed away suddenly. She had made it her priority to ensure medications were filled, doctor appointments were scheduled, the coordination with various agencies’ in-home services were met and much more. Her passing was not only a family tragedy, but also made continuing Lisa’s care a challenge. However, her husband and son met this challenge with perseverance, learning and love.

We do our best to involve her as much as we can or as much as she’ll want to do. Although difficulties arise, everyone is happy she’s here.

Rick Jr.

Rick Jr. says, “Lisa brings new life to our household.” Providing her with a sustainable life is an experience Rick Sr. and Rick Jr. agree is most fulfilling. There are days when caring for Lisa can pose obstacles, but with a degree in biopsychology, Rick Jr. has learned how to best care for her.

With services from A Second Chance, Inc., such as Stepping Into Families, they have received the adequate support and attention they needed to provide Lisa the best care possible and officially make her a part of their family!

The Stepping Into Families model has been utilized to specifically address aging out and long stays for older youth in the child welfare system. It is highly adaptable and has proven successful in working with special-needs children and youth in the kinship space.  

Older youth in care and those with special needs are subjected to an experience quite different than younger children, many in multiple placements and congregate care. We recognize that adolescence, or addressing life adaptations for a special need, is a pivotal time in the life of a young person from the perspectives of physical development, mental growth and self-discovery. Thus, we believe that the best place for youth to take this journey is with their own family—it is their moral right. That is why Stepping Into Families was intentionally framed from a kinship care perspective. The model recognizes the importance of kinship for older youth and those with special needs, as the best way to transition into adulthood.   

Stepping Into Families has always worked diligently to ensure that a permanent, stable placement is located for the youth receiving services in our program, with a focus on kinship. In Lisa’s case, that’s exactly what happened! Placed with family, Lisa has found her forever home.

It is important for caregivers to have patience and understand that there are going to be good days and bad days, but it’s all worth it. Rick Jr. says the most rewarding thing about being Lisa’s guardian is how far she has progressed since she first came to live with them.

“She loves listening to music videos on her iPad, and she’s really good at quoting song lyrics at appropriate times. Like, if she gets annoyed or mad at you, she’ll start singing, ‘You’re crazy and I’m out of my mind.’ It’s really interesting how she is able to put all that together. When she came to live with us, we were told that she would only say about 20 words. She’s proved them wrong,” Rick Jr. shares. “We have a watercolor mat where you fill markers with water. She likes coloring it to reveal the color underneath it. And she loves swimming. She’ll be in there for hours and she won’t get out.”

Since being in their care, Lisa has grown tremendously. Due to her autism, there have been many limits placed against her, however, she continues to prove she is more than a statistic. The sky is the limit for Lisa! She is a permanent and joyful addition to their family and surprises them daily with her developmental progress. “It’s been amazing to see how far she’s come and how much she’s learned,” Rick Jr. says. “There really wasn’t a limit on where she would go.”

Just like Lisa, there are so many special-needs youth in care who continue to fight and win daily battles. Lisa is proof that just because a disability may create barriers, those barriers can be overcome with supportive services, patience and family.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of A Second Chance, Inc.

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