When two former neighbors’ daughters were removed from their home by the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, Brian and Angela (whose names have been changed for privacy and safety) said yes to a weekend of keeping the little girls so they wouldn’t have to be placed in a shelter. They had babysat the girls a few times, but had no parenting experience themselves. Several days later, they were asked if they would keep the girls as kinship foster parents while the parents sorted things out.
“It basically happened overnight,” Angela said. “Saying ‘yes’ to the weekend was easy, like babysitting for an emergency. But when they contacted us about watching them as [kinship] foster parents, in which we were not certified to do, we were scared, nervous, apprehensive. My husband and I had never cared for children before and didn’t know what to expect.”
Angela and Brian were comfortable in their lives without children. But they knew these little girls and were more afraid to say no, wondering what would happen to them otherwise. While there were relatives who may have been able to take them, Angela and Brian were the most stable people in their lives and the biological parents wanted their children to live with the couple.
“We prayed, we said yes and within a matter of hours we had picked the girls up at the shelter to come live with us,” Angela said.
While the priority of kinship placements doesn’t diminish the increasing need for traditional foster parents in our state, OKDHS is intent on trying to place a child with someone he or she knows upon removal from the biological home.
“For a number of years Oklahoma has looked to relatives to take in children, even more than many other states,” said Deb Shropshire, deputy director of child welfare community partnerships. “I think philosophically there is an increasing awareness that keeping kids connected to their families and communities is the right thing to do and in fact that it may yield better long-term outcomes.”
For Tabitha Jones, the decision to take guardianship of her niece and nephew was a simple one: “I know foster care is there for a reason and sometimes that is the only option. But I believe children should be with family because family ties are so important.”
When her brother could no longer cope with having children, Jones’ large family rallied together to ensure Jentry and Jordan would stay with family. While there were several viable placement options for the children, Jones chose to step up because she felt she had the simplest lifestyle to accommodate them.
“All the others had their own children and spouses and it would have been harder for them,” said Jones. “I wanted them to know the family and I didn’t want them being with strangers.”
Making kinship placements a priority
A kinship foster placement is one in which a child is placed with someone he or she already knows. That individual or family could be a relative, or it could be a neighbor, family friend or Sunday School teacher. As of Sept. 30, nearly 42 percent of the 10,872 Oklahoma children in foster care reside in kinship placements. As the number of foster children grows in our state and the goal of traditional foster homes has not been met, kinship placements have become even more critical.
“We know that our children suffer less trauma when they are able to be placed with family or someone with whom they had a prior relationship,” said Lashowann Smith, case worker supervisor in foster care for OKDHS.
Unlike traditional foster parents, who can currently work with a private foster care placement agency or OKDHS, all kinship placements are handled by OKDHS. The agency is making improved efforts immediately upon a child being removed from a home to place that child with someone he or she already knows before a request for a traditional foster family is made.
“Being removed from your home as well as dealing with whatever stressors were in your home to begin with can be very stressful for kids,” Shropshire said. “Moving to the home of someone who is familiar makes that transition feel much smoother and safer for a child.”
Smith said kinship leads to less placement disruptions because family is usually more familiar with and understanding of a child’s behaviors.
“Relatives or family friends may understand family dynamics and be helpful to the case worker and the court in also understanding what supports are needed for the child to return home,” Shropshire said. “They are likely to be very personally invested in the child and more willing to keep the child connected to their school, their culture and heritage.”
Smith said kinship foster parents may be more willing to bridge with biological parents, aiding in reunification of the child with his or her family. She cites the more visits a child has with his or her biological parents, the more likely that child is to return home. If reunification is in the cards, the support of the family or friends who served as a kinship placement is crucial even after the child returns home.
“Engaging the family and supportive friends not just during the crisis but also as the family reunifies is very important,” Shropshire said. “The person who served as the foster home will be the same person who can support the mom and dad who get their kids back, but who may still struggle with some of the life challenges that caused a safety risk in the first place.”
Jones ensures her niece and nephew are connected with their extended family and supports relationships with their biological parents.
“Jentry and Jordan have been able to stay in contact with all of their other aunts, uncles and cousins who they were close to before coming to live with me,” Jones said. “They have also been able to see healthy relationship within the family and they have been able to have limited but healthier relationships with their parents.”
Shropshire has witnessed time and time again that desire to stay connected to or reconnect with biological families, regardless of circumstances.
“While it may be counterintuitive, most children really do want to know where they came from,” she said, “even if the story hasn’t always been pretty.”
The hardship in becoming parents overnight
Not unlike traditional foster parents, kinship foster parents often receive a placement without much notice. The difference, however, is that kinship parents may be totally unprepared for the child to enter the family.
“The parents, law enforcement or DHS appear on their doorstep and the decision to raise the children is an instant one,” said Andrea Sneed, social services coordinator for Sunbeam Family Services.
Like Brian and Angela, kinship foster parents may have never considered becoming a foster parent, much less completed the training, child-proofed their home or picked up necessary supplies. While traditional foster parents must be fully trained and approved prior to receiving a placement, a kinship placement can occur after a precursory background check and safety walk-through of the home.
“We had nothing for the kids, not even a change of clothes,” Angela said. Members of their church threw them a shower to provide necessities and friends brought meals. OKDHS was instrumental in providing clothing vouchers and getting the girls into counseling.
Just like traditional foster parents, kinship foster parents must complete 27 hours of training before they are eligible to receive monthly payments from the state. However, kinship foster parents are typically trying to complete that training and a detailed home study while simultaneously caring for the foster child or children placed in their home.
In Brian and Angela’s case, their work schedules meant they would have had to take leave to attend the classes and there was no childcare provided. After about six months of fostering the girls, OKDHS began offering an expedited class, which they took advantage of.
“We still had to take off work, but it was doable to get everything knocked out in one weekend,” Angela said. “Even though we had the kids a long time before we attended the classes, we still learned a lot.”
The sudden shift in roles for kinship foster parents can also prove tumultuous.
“You have to suddenly serve as the ‘parent’ when you may have previously been the ‘grandparent,’ while at the same time serving as an ‘enforcer’ of the state’s rules and court orders against your own child or relative,” Shropshire said.
Kinship foster parents’ preexisting relationships with their foster children’s biological parents often pose difficulties. Unlike many traditional foster care situations, biological parents know where their children are living. As Shropshire puts it, it’s hard to be in the middle of a family mess.
“The bio parent may get angry with you, they know where you live and may come over,” said Shropshire, “If there are already unhealthy dynamics between the bio and the relative, this can exacerbate.”
For grandparents or those already on a limited budget in particular, the financial strain of unexpectedly adding one or more grandchildren to their household can be overwhelming. Judy Lietner, coordinator of Oklahoma Aging Advocacy Leadership Academy through OKDHS, works with individuals age 55 and over. She said while these grandparents may be doing fairly well surviving on social security and retirement, the added expenses of daycare, health insurance and providing for grandchildren in general can take quite a toll.
“Adding family members increases the stress financially long term,” said Sneed. “The grandparents accept this challenge because they love their grandchildren and don’t want them separated from their family.”
Supporting kinship foster parents
One of the keys to better kinship placement utilization is improved support for these families, as well as improved communication to ensure kinship families are aware of the resources available to them.
A fundamental segment of kinship placements are grandparents raising grandchildren, the rate of which has increased tremendously over the past five years, according to Sneed. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Oklahoma ranks in the top 10 states that have grandparents or other relatives raising children, with 81,000 grandparents in our state living with their grandchildren and almost 44,000 grandparents holding full responsibility for those grandchildren. Nearly nine percent of children in Oklahoma are being raised by grandparents.
Lietner connects grandparents raising grandchildren to a variety of resources, including legal services for grandparents seeking to adopt or take guardianship of their grandchildren, help securing health insurance for foster children and grants to pay for respite care. A new partnership between OKDHS and the state library system will offer telecasts via 26 libraries across Oklahoma specifically to address concerns and listen to questions of grandparents raising grandchildren.
Lietner works closely with Sneed through Sunbeam Family Services’ Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program, which has been serving grandparents for 14 years. Staples of the program include assistance with school supplies and holiday gifts, peer-led support groups and referrals for clothing and groceries.
While the financial and resource support are critical to the grandparents she serves, Sneed says it’s the support groups that are often the most valuable: “The GRG support groups support the grandparents emotionally by providing a safe, confidential group to talk candidly about the struggles that they are facing. The support groups are often the best resource for the GRGs because someone in the group has been where that grandparent is now in their journey.”
Lietner cites generational differences as an added challenge for grandparents raising grandchildren, as well as a very different educational system than the one that existed when grandparents were raising their own children. Lietner says mental health issues often plague these grandchildren long term as they deal with abandonment and the trauma they’ve endured. An added challenge occurs as grandparents age and roles reverse.
“They assume caregiver roles with the grandparent,” Lietner said. “It’s something we are going to have to figure out how to address.”
For grandparents or any type of kinship placement, Smith refers her foster parents to several local organizations for help. Oklahoma Foster Wishes offers baby gear, beds, clothing, food and car seats to any foster parents. United Methodist Circle of Care operates free thrift stores in Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Talehquah for foster parents to choose clothing and other material goods. Citizens Caring for Children’s Resource Center provides outfits, toiletries and books four times per year to any child in foster care.
Jones has made use of OKDHS’s guardianship placement services and has found counseling to be imperative for her niece and nephew. Although experts cite less trauma when a child is moved to the home of someone he or she already knows, that doesn’t mean the road is an easy one.
While Jones was familiar with her niece and nephew’s behaviors before they came to live with her, their initial respective rage and inclination to hide food were clear indicators of the trauma they endured.
“I have seen marked improvements,” said Jones of her niece and nephew’s response to counseling and a stable environment.
When Brian and Angela and Jones said “yes” to being an integral part of four different children’s lives, their own lives changed in the blink of an eye. Jones has assumed guardianship of her niece and nephew. Brian and Angela had their foster children for almost two years before helping them transition to their permanent, adoptive home.
“After it was clear they wouldn’t be able to live with their biological parents ever again, we started to prepare them,” Angela said. “We would tell them that God had a special mommy and daddy out there that were praying to get two beautiful little girls just like them.”
The girls’ transition to their forever home was a positive one and Brian and Angela still see them from time to time. The couple is grateful to the girls’ adoptive parents for letting them remain a part of their lives, and they are appreciative of the special bond they share with their former foster children.
“We made an abrupt decision and changed the lives of two kids forever,” Angela said. “We had no parenting experience and were not prepared for children. But we did it. We said yes. Our lives were forever changed for the better.”
Traditional vs. kinship foster placements
Although traditional foster parents enter into fostering with an understanding and acceptance of trying to help a foster child reunite with biological family, the dynamics between traditional and kinship foster parents can be a source of friction, particularly when a child is moved from a traditional foster home in favor of a kinship placement.
“The solution to that is better family-finding and family engagement up front, so that kids can go to a relative very quickly, and this is something we are definitely working to improve,” said Shropshire.
It’s emotional for a traditional foster family to deal with the removal of a child they have grown to love, even if it’s what’s deemed in the best interest of that child.
“The foster family bonds with the child and sees them thrive and hates to see them move at all,” said Shropshire.
In such a case, the traditional foster family may view itself better equipped to meet the child’s needs, in terms of fostering healthy relationships, opportunity and education.
“On the surface, they may be right,” said Shropshire. “However, humans have a deep-seated biological and emotional need to be with ‘their people.’ I encourage traditional foster families, as well as others in the community, to appreciate the value of relatives and family friends who step into sudden fostering and find ways to partner and support those families that allow the child the best of both worlds.”
[Editor’s Note: to learn more about becoming a foster parent, find resources and contact information for agencies here.]