When a child first learns to tie their shoelaces together, they are either too loose and become easily undone or they are pulled so tightly, they are uncomfortable and difficult to untie or even become knotted. With practice, however, the child learns the balance – the ties should hold the laces together but they should not be difficult to untie when it’s time to take them off.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I think of the ties that bind female kinship caregivers to their daughters and sons and thus to the children in their care, their grandchildren, nephew and nieces. The relationships can certainly test the parameters of motherhood.
Mother’s Day for families in kinship care can easily become an emotional trigger for the ties in the kinship triad – child/youth, caregiver and birthparent. How children and youth will bond with a grandmother or aunt is conflicted with their bond to their natural mother. A child or youth in kinship care has so many questions about the bonds between themselves and their relative caregiver. Should they tie them loosely to maintain a distance? If they tie them too tight are they giving up on their mother?
Of course kin caregivers and birth mothers are reflecting on these very same issues. How tightly should grandma or auntie bond with her grandchildren as a parent? Birth mothers are contemplating if they will ever be able to tie the bonds back together between them, their own child and their parents or siblings.
Caseworkers involved in kinship care must know how to engage families in this dynamic, which is drastically different than foster care involving strangers. In traditional foster care, the “ties that bind” are often intentionally tied loosely because reunification with a parent may not be a priority. However, in my model of kinship care, casework plans are required to explore reunification with the birth parent(s) as the first permanency option if appropriate. Our philosophy and practices revolve around maintaining ties between the birthparent, caregiver and child so that the stigma of care can be removed and motivation established for birthparents to work towards reunifying with their children.
In my recently launched book, “On My Way Home – A Memoir of Kinship, Grace and Hope,” which is a personal story and journey of my own youth in kinship care, I speak to this situation directly.
We must vigilantly pursue permanency for kinship children at the beginning of our engagement with them. The notion that children are with family and kinship bonds are intact is true. However, birth parents have a right to resume parental responsibility, relatives have a right to continue on with their lives, and most importantly, the children have a right to understand what the future will look for them. With that said, the family must be given the right to decide the permanency option that is best for them once the permanency goal of reunification has been ruled out. This decision must include the voice of the youth. Adoption and Subsidized Guardianship, as alternative permanency arrangements, must be discussed early in the life of the case. Aging out or APPLA is not to be considered a permanency option for kinship young people of promise. As I often coach to staff in many decisions, I ask that they apply the “standard of their own.” In other words, if you were the child or the parent, is this what you would want personally?
A developmental approach to relationship building in the kinship triad is central to case management. The SARKS (Standards Assessing and Recognizing Kinship Strengths) model of my agency, A Second Chance, Inc. is our curriculum for working with kinship caregivers. Intentionally, the curriculum is written within the context of a developmental sensitivity. As an example, relationship building between young children and their birth mothers is much different than when working with a teen. Our kinship caseworkers are enriched to facilitate conversations around what information is shared with children/youth, the manner of delivery and even when it should occur. One size does not fit all. My philosophy is that we accommodate not only to the age of the child, but also to the readiness and style of the caregivers. It’s not unusual to actually have our caregivers role play and rehearse what they will say to the children/youth in the care regarding their birth mother.
Learning to tie our shoelaces is one of the things that starts to give us more control in life. When grandmother has to become “mother” to her grandchild niece or nephew – her sense of control becomes misaligned. When a birth mother observes her mother or sister or other family member becoming the parent to her child, she may feel out of control. The child/youth, which is at the center of the triad, is both experiencing and feeling the effects of the control struggle.
I lost my own mother at the age of six. I still feel a sense of loss to this day. During my time in child welfare, no one was there to help me navigate my feelings around the kin that took turns attempting to fill in for my mother. And that is the point. No one can fill in for your mother.
I am committed to people first and process second. Kinship care works for those who are committed to family. Even in the best of situations, the ties that bind us can unravel or become so knotted they are difficult to remove. But in the end we know we have to do something – we cannot run around with a loose shoe or one tied so tightly that it hurts or we can’t untie it and take it off. In the context of kinship care, we must demonstrate in our policies and practices that caregivers and birthparents must monitor and reflect on their own behaviors so that a child or youth does not have to deal with the additional trauma of control. As long as we have something in common, there will always be a tie. How we tie things together is usually in our control.
Let’s keep the kinship care conversations going…
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