The Backbone of Kinship Care: Sustaining Families Through Generational Wisdom in Kinship
Whether formally or informally, grandparents are, through their unconditional kinship, the backbone of our system’s efforts to keep children safe. ASCI kinship caregiver and grandmother Ms. Smith* exemplifies this, discussing the joys of being a grandparent while also caring for her grandchildren for the last year. “As a grandparent in general, you just love your grandchildren in such a different way than you love your own children,” she begins. “It’s a magical, special way. I’ve watched every one of them being born. I’ve been by each mother’s side during delivery, and by their side since each of them were born. Having them in my home constantly…they make me feel a joy I’ve never felt before. They make me feel special.”
Because the use of kinship care spans every culture, it is applicable to every child welfare system and should be recognized as such. Moreover, grandparents have played a vital role in modeling kinship care throughout generations, acting as our families’ foundation and passing down family histories, traditions and wisdom.
In the African American community, kinship care has been a prevalent, natural practice. Historically, Black families have demonstrated their strength and resilience through preserving their family structures in times of crisis. As a culturally based tradition within the Black community, kinship care in the child welfare system is the most anti-racist way to reduce and eventually eliminate disparities in placements linked to race and ethnicity, across the continuum of service.
Further, for many kinship families, grandparents act as the primary caregivers for their grandchildren, as they have historically been a primary placement option. According to Generations United, roughly 2.5 million grandparents report they are responsible for their grandchildren’s needs, and in about a third of these homes neither of the children’s parents are present.
Grandfamilies are not a new sensation or phenomenon; grandparents almost always step forward to keep their families together and have a unique connection with all family members—one of modeling, mentoring, enriching, easing, etc.
Grandfamilies.org reports that in addition to the benefits children see as a result of being part of grandfamilies, caregivers also benefit, citing an increased sense of purpose. Birth parents also value keeping their children connected to family.
However, every family is different and therefore, every grandparent is different. And while the child welfare system continues to evolve to better meet the needs of every grandfamily—recognizing their distinctive strengths and the countless positive outcomes their grandchildren experience in their care—there is not a one-size-fits-all framework for working with grandparents or any other kinship caregiver.
Is it a sacrifice, a responsibility or just what families do?
Whether formally or informally, grandparents who act as kinship caregivers make invaluable sacrifices to keep their families whole. Their natural response to step in demonstrates their strength and love for their grandchildren, as well as their determination to maintain family connections and culture.
For Ms. Brown*, although providing kinship care informally, she sees raising her 5-year-old and 7-year-old grandsons as a way to ensure they are understood and can thrive with family as opposed to people with whom they aren’t familiar. “Although someone else may get to know them, it may take a while, and I give them so much extra love,” she explains.
Brown notes one challenge she has experienced as a caregiver has been seeing her grandsons needing emotional support. “With him being an introvert, I try to bring out his feelings, whether through play or serious conversation,” she explains, referring to her youngest grandson. “Once he does bring it out, he cries. And I cry, too. That’s the hard part because he’s trying to keep in his feelings about his mom, trying to be a big boy, but he’s still a baby on the inside.”
Brown and her husband have cared for their grandsons on and off since they were born, however, they have acted as their primary caregivers continuously for more than a year. “We’re a family,” she says. “We need to be a family unit no matter what goes on on the outside. We have our home, and it’s structured, and we’re trying to maintain and teach them the right things.”
The multifaceted roles of grandparenting.
As the owner of a childcare center, Brown knows firsthand the importance of teaching children and finds joy in teaching her grandsons.
“I was teaching them how to flip,” she shares. “[I told them], ‘Even though Nana shouldn’t be doing this, I’m going to show you how to flip!’ We love to go the park. They like basketball. So, now I’m teaching them how to dribble and shoot.”
Brown has also been instrumental in keeping her grandsons’ education on track during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I think [COVID-19] has brought us closer, but the schooling issue has been challenging” she explains. “Now we have to put that more into our daily schedules, whether school is in or not. When the pandemic came about, I was able to see what my older grandson knew and what he didn’t know. So, many days I had to teach him the basics and foundations with his current schoolwork so he can understand it.”
As an informal kinship caregiver, Brown explains that while she does have need for extra support and resources, she has been holding onto the hope that her daughter will find the support and help she needs to take care of the boys. “I don’t know what types of supports are out there for me. I don’t know much about the child welfare system. But, I haven’t started much research because their mom keeps telling me she’s coming back.”
Looking back on her journey as a caregiver to her grandsons, Brown advises other grandparents who may be taking in their grandchildren to “make sure their parents are involved from the door, and don’t let time slip away.”
The foster system would collapse without kinship care—in particular, its reliance on grandparents.
The foster care system relies heavily on relative caregivers, as kinship placements are the preferred placement option for children needing out-of-home care vs. nonrelative placements. The data supports that when compared to traditional foster care, kinship care has the potential to provide better safety, well-being and permanency. Moreover, because of the important role grandparents play as caregivers in the kinship triad, children are able to remain connected to their families and cultures and are less likely to re-enter the foster care system after returning to their birth parents. At ASCI, we work to empower caregivers and birth parents alike to ensure this continues to happen safely and effectively.
Although Ms. Smith is a formal kinship caregiver, making the transition from grandparent to primary caregiver was challenging at first.
“I am the grandmother of six,” she explains. “Before I was caring for some of them full-time in my home, I had the opportunity to be just the grandparent—to spoil, to give them what I wanted to give them or to have them on a weekend, or to just take them shopping. And it was really special to be able to do those things.
“And then, bringing three of them into my home and caring for them full-time changed things up. They still do have parents, and I have to remember that. I still have to remember those rights their parents still hold. In the beginning, I was still trying to be a grandparent but [also] to recognize that I was now a caregiver. I was a guardian. It was really a jolt because I had to completely change my way of thinking. My husband and I took them in because we wanted their lives to be OK. We didn’t want them to go to a foster home or anything like that, so things had to change. I couldn’t let them get away with things I would let them get away with when they were just visiting. I went from rarely having to discipline to having rules and dishing out discipline, and that was totally different for them and us.”
Despite some of these challenges, Smith and her husband continue to find enjoyable things they can do to provide their grandchildren with a sense of normalcy. “We do a lot of baking, because they like to play in the dough more than they actually like to bake,” she jokes. “They like the art project that it can become. I’m also a gardener, so they’ll be out in the garden with us.
“We just keep doing life, and we bring them alongside us. It’s not that we’re doing anything above and beyond. It’s just the everyday things that they’re willing to be beside us to do and we’re willing to have the patience to allow them to do. Because, it does take a lot of patience to put seeds in the ground and to know that they’re not going to come up exactly where you’d prefer them to!”
With the Smiths both working full-time jobs and having three additional grandchildren, the experience of caregiving has been one of much time and sacrifice.
“It’s been a good experience, a learning experience for me,” Smith shares. “It does sometimes take away from the other grandchildren, because now I’m a full-time parent and I work full-time, so I have to sacrifice myself even more. And because of the closeness in age, they all have an expectation that we should all do things together.”
Yet, both grandparents hope their grandchildren will hold onto the memories they’re making and live successful lives as a result of their love and sacrifice.
“I am doing the best I can,” Smith continues. “Right now, I feel that this is the path that my higher power wants me to be on. I’m trying to follow that. My husband and I both hope that we make a positive impact on them that they carry into adulthood. Maybe they someday say, ‘I remember when Grandma and Papi did this, and this is what I took away from it.’ Something positive.”
As their journey of kinship care continues, Smith has advice for other grandparents in their shoes: “Don’t hesitate to educate yourself about the foster care system, about agencies like A Second Chance, Inc. There’s a lot to learn. Talk to other people. Watch things on the internet and objectively learn from it.”
She adds, “Half of what you must do is just love them. A lot of the other stuff, with our maturity as grandparents, it will fall into place.”
As an organization built on the foundation of family and the belief in the power of kinship, ASCI works every day to ensure grandfamilies have the support they need to thrive. We embrace the transformative nature of kinship care and celebrate all caregivers who make daily sacrifices to ensure the safety and well-being of the children in their care.
*Names have been changed to protect family identities.