Vol. 19, No. 2 • May 2015

Self-Care for Relative Caregivers: One Family's Story

by Tonia Jacobs Deese

If you are caring for a loved one's child due to abuse or neglect, our child welfare system relies on you. One in four children in foster care in North Carolina are in "kinship placements," which typically means a county department of social services has legal custody of the child, but the child lives with a relative (Duncan, 2014).

Benefits and Challenges
"Kinship care helps children maintain familial and community bonds and provides them with a sense of stability, identity, and belonging, especially during times of crisis. Kinship care also helps to minimize the trauma and loss that accompany parental separation" (Annie Casey Foundation, 2012).

We know kids often do better when they're with family. Research tells us that children in kinship placements have:

  • Fewer behavioral problems
  • Lower rates of mental illness
  • Better overall well-being
  • Fewer placements and placement disruptions (Jordan Institute, 2014).

We also know that kinship care has some unique challenges. Kinship caregivers tend to receive fewer services, less financial support, and less training. Relatives often must take in a child with little time to prepare, and the change in roles can cause conflict between the birth parents and kinship providers (Crumbley, 2015).

Still, kinship care is a valuable option for families. To learn more, we spoke with "Ms. Maxwell," a North Carolinian who has custody of her two adolescent grandkids, "Kera" and "Audrianna." (Note: all names used in this article have been changed.)

A Conversation with Ms. Maxwell
What made you decide to take in Kera and Audrianna?
Their mom has bipolar and personality disorder and has been hospitalized seven times, sometimes for a month or more. I was called to the ER and told the kids would have to go with me or into a foster home. The kids had to go into a foster home for a weekend and that really bothered me. I didn't ever want to see them go back to a foster home.

What has it been like caring for the girls?
It's a joy to know they're here and happy. Kera has been asking for love and wants to know somebody loves her. They've been put down and picked on. They've had trauma. It's been trying at times, especially with two teenagers, but therapy has really helped. It teaches them how to handle stress, their thoughts, and their attitudes. I really believe in therapy. Anytime a child is taken out of their home, it's hard on them and they need therapy.

What are the benefits of caring for the girls?
Knowing that they are happy. I think I give them a sense of hope. I constantly tell them they can do what they put their minds to.

What are the biggest challenges?
Getting them into a routine: having chores, introducing them to discipline and consequences. Dealing with their attitude. The kids weren't used to being disciplined by their mother. They really miss their mom.

What kind of impact has caring for them had on you?
A lot of times I neglect myself because I know my priority is the kids. The girls push me to do things to take care of myself.

My relationship with my daughter (their mother) is getting better. We were estranged for a while. At first I really felt it was my fault that she was in her situation. I had to come to the conclusion that I wasn't the one who made her do the things she did. I had to understand her mental illness. I think our relationship is better because she knows I'm taking care of her kids.

What kind of impact has this placement had on the girls?
They now know that people are concerned about them and are doing things to help them. They've always known me as grandma, but we are getting closer.

What support have you received in caring for the children?
I get Work First (TANF) and Social Security Disability benefits, and the kids have Medicaid. A local private child-placing agency and Big Brothers Big Sisters have provided food for Thanksgiving, Christmas presents, clothes, and fun activities for the kids.

Big Brothers Big Sisters just started a grandparent support team. We meet once a month and I really enjoy it. Sometimes it feels like you're the only one struggling to raise your grandkids. This group reminds me I'm not alone. I've gotten good ideas on what to do from other grandparents and from the kids' therapists. My DSS workers have been wonderful. I don't know how I would've done it without support.

Is there anything you'd like to say to other kinship families?
Keep in there. Hang tight. Keep your faith strong and the end result will be very beneficial and helpful. It will get tough sometimes, but it will be a pleasure knowing you had some role in helping the kids.

Key Take-Away Messages
Ms. Maxwell's story reminds all kinship caregivers that:

  • You don't have to do this alone.
  • You're doing the best you can.
  • Don't be surprised or ashamed if you feel angry, shocked, sad, or guilty about why the child is living with you. Whatever you're feeling--it's okay and normal.
  • You've added another member to your family, and that can make it tough to make ends meet. Check with your social worker to see if you qualify for Work First benefits, housing assistance, tax credits, child care assistance, or SNAP benefits (also known as "food stamps").
  • Take care of yourself, too! Caring for someone else's child can be stressful. Self-care helps prevent burnout. Remember, for the child to be OK, you have to be OK.

(Crumbley, 2008; Foster Care & Adoption Resource Center)

Tonia Jacobs Deese, LCSW, is a Clinical Instructor / Educational Specialist with the UNC-CH School of Social Work.

Resources for Kinship Cargivers

AARP Grandparent Information Center has a resource guide and a quarterly newsletter for relative caregivers. Visit www.aarp.org/grandparents or www.aarp.org/nc.

Family Caregiver Support Program offers counseling, support groups, training, respite care, and information about community services in 17 North Carolina counties. Visit www.ncdhhs.gov/aging/aaa.htm.

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and Kinship Support Group. Offered through the NC Cooperative Extension Program, this group provides a series of six classes for grandparents focusing on support, accessing resources, and helping the child. Call 919-515-2813 or visit www.ces.ncsu.edu.

Senior Resources of Guilford has lunch & learn groups once a month. Call Debra Stokes at 336-373-4816 or email [email protected].

Buncombe County: Bair Foundation operates a kinship program in Buncombe that includes support groups, a community garden, newsletter, and other assistance. Visit http://bit.ly/1Bnds4y or call 877-213-0723 (toll-free).

Catawba County has a kinship care support group, provides legal assistance, and helps families access resources. Call 828-465-8901 or visit at http://bit.ly/1B0J8YJ.

Relatives as Parents Program offers education and support groups in a number of NC counties:

Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Mitchell, Watauga, Wilkes, and Yancey Counties: To learn more visit http://www.regiond.org/ or call 866-219-3643 (ext. 128) (toll-free).

Forsyth County: Email Susan Parker at [email protected] or call 336-703-3744.

Other counties: Contact Alicia Blater at 919-733-0440 or Dr. Luci Bearon at 919-515-9146 to see if there is a Relatives as Parents Program group in your county.

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~