So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now --
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
--"Mother to Son," Langston Hughes
Family, with all its strengths and complexities, is a cornerstone of American culture. For generations, grandparents and other relatives have stepped forward to raise children whose parents cannot. And while family members still provide a vital safety net for children at-risk, the obstacles facing these families are more formidable than ever. "Fifty years ago, the entire family and the community we're expected to join together and do their part to help," explains one Washington, DC grandmother raising three ngrandchildren. "These days there is no one else to help. No one wants the responsibility. No one wants the heartache."
Substance abuse, incarceration, domestic violence, physical and mental illness, teen pregnancy and other serious problems have resulted in more than 6 million children who currently live in grandparent-headed households. According to the most recent U.S. Census, 2.4 million grandparents report they are responsible for their grandchildren's basic needs. Increasingly, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings are also taking on the role of substitute parents—either through family agreements or under the supervision of state child welfare agencies and courts.
The Changing Face of Relative Care in America
Inside and outside the foster care system, life is not easy for children raised by grandparents and other relatives. Without court-sanctioned legal custody or guardianship, family members find it difficult to access even the most basic benefits and services. "If children are living with relatives informally, their caregivers are often unable to enroll their grandchildren in school, obtain medical care and make all the other day-to-day decisions parents take for granted," says Sherry Neal, Director of the Grandparent/Relative Caregiver Project at Atlanta's Legal Aid Society.
The emotional stress of raising a child is also hard on caregivers, especially for older, disabled or poor caregivers who may have serious health problems of their own. Children raised by grandparents and other caregivers are more likely to have a range of special needs including complications from low birth weight, ADHD and other developmental and behavioral issues that result from parental substance abuse. These problems can be exacerbated by the parents themselves, who often move in and out of their children's lives unpredictably and with little accountability.
Even caregivers who are caring for children under the "watchful" eye of the child welfare system are often at a disadvantage. "In our experience, relatives are offered and receive fewer services than non-kin caregivers," says Legal Aid's Neal. "A lot of times, the agency views relatives as a way to prevent children from coming into the system in the first place, so they rarely provide the services necessary to truly support the placement." In many cases, the lack of services to relatives when a child first comes into care can also result in additional complications for court personnel. "One reason that so many CASA programs are pressed into serving children who appear before the court in guardianship and domestic custody cases is because a lot of these cases should have been adjudicated as abuse and neglect in the first place," explains Janet Ward, National CASA program specialist for the Midwest region, "Instead, they are coming into the family court in droves."
The Myth that Hurts Children and Families
According to many relative caregivers, the most painful barrier they encounter is not the lack of services and financial supports. It is the antiquated notion that the "apple doesn't fall far from the tree"—the misguided assumption among some social workers, lawyers and judges that if the child's parent aren't able to raise the child, the rest of the family must be equally dysfunctional. Experts who work most closely with caregivers and the children they are raising contend that shattering this myth is the first step in getting these families the community understanding and support they need most. "I've lost count of how many times I have seen grandparents beat themselves up over what they did wrong. A grandmother can have three other adult children who turned out great, but she still thinks it's her fault," says Carol Boyer, Director of Generations Together, a Delaware support program. "Every parent knows that sometimes there are influences beyond even their control."
Caregivers say that these common misperceptions are not only hurtful to them, they unfairly brand the child they are raising. "We say that the apple may not fall far from the tree, but we're not responsible for how far it rolls," says Brigitte Castellano, Executive Director of the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights, a national advocacy organization. "Not only are we advocating for the child, but we also have to fight the prejudice against us."
Relative Care as a Source of Stable Placements for Children
Despite its critics, most agency leaders and expert practitioners agree that an appropriate placement with caring relatives can often provide a loving, familiar and stable setting for a child at-risk. "Grandparents are usually the first line of defense from abuse and neglect," says the National Committee's Castellano. "When a parent can no longer care for their children, why should those children lose their entire family?" Placing a child with caring family members also has other advantages for the child, such as helping to preserve a child's racial and ethnic identity, and sometimes their ability to stay in a familiar and supportive neighborhood. "Grandparents and other relatives are also more likely to keep siblings together," adds Kikora Dorsey of Casey Family Programs in Seattle, a fundamental consideration that is often overlooked when agency placements are made.
The most important reason to place the child with qualified relatives, however, is also the most obvious: they already know and love the child. "Grandparents know the history of the child and the family," says Boyer, "They know the child personally and intimately. And the child knows them." Preserving family connections is especially important in cases involving older children. Explains Karen Worthington, Director of the Barton Law & Policy Clinic at Emory University School of Law, "the adolescent years are the time when many children most need that sense of belonging. Family members can often provide that support in ways others may not be able to." Casey Family Program's Dorsey agrees. "Raising adolescents in a changing world can be challenging for anybody, but especially so for grandparents and other relatives who may not be prepared to deal with a teenager. It's even more complicated if the child has special needs and these needs have not been met as the child grows."
Children, Caregivers and the Courts
While grandparents and other relatives may be certain of their love and commitment to a child, they are much less sure of their relationship with child welfare agencies and the courts. Even when children are placed with relatives through a child welfare agency, caregivers' roles in subsequent dependency proceedings are poorly defined. While federal law now requires that foster parents and relatives caring for a child in foster care must be given notice of and an opportunity to be heard in any hearings or reviews involving the child, some courts interpret this provision narrowly or overlook it altogether. "In many states, there is no uniform procedure for gathering information from caregivers," explains Cecilia Fiermonte, an attorney with the American Bar Association's Center for Children and the Law. "Judges might put a written report in the file, but not consider it as evidence. They may not ask the caregivers if they have anything to say, so the relatives end up missing their opportunity to speak at all."
There are additional complications when a caregiver tries to navigate the judicial system without counsel. "Generally, caregivers are clueless about the court system and what rights they may have," explains Carol Boyer. "They don't understand why parents' interests are represented by an attorney and they're not given counsel even though they are the ones raising the child." Caregivers who decide that they might be better off hiring their own lawyers often find themselves in a legal Catch-22, earning too much to qualify for the limited number of free legal services and too little to afford the high costs of a private attorney.
In addition to feeling "pitted" against the parents of the children in adversarial court proceedings, relatives often report feeling unfairly judged by agency representatives and court personnel. Sometimes dismissed as ‘intrusive' or ‘meddlesome,' grandparents are afraid that if they speak up in court, the agency or judge might retaliate against them and take away the child. The situation can be worse for relatives who become involved in an abuse and neglect case late because they had not even been told that the child had been placed in foster care. "Often kin are out of the loop or waiting on the sidelines hoping that the child's parents will get their acts together," says Barbara Kates, director of Family Connections, a grandparent outreach organization in Bangor, Maine. "Just because relatives don't participate in the court process immediately doesn't mean they are not committed to the child. Sometimes they just don't know where or how to start."
Relative Caregivers as a Resource for CASA Volunteers
Although some courts may still be struggling to define the appropriate role of extended family members in abuse and neglect proceedings, grandparents and other relatives can still be an invaluable resource for CASA volunteers helping a judge to determine what is best for a child. First and foremost, relative caregivers can be a source of helpful information. "It's important for CASA volunteers to recognize family members as vital allies in the process of developing a permanent placement for the child," says Atlanta Legal Aid's Sherry Neal. "Even when a family placement doesn't turn out to be the best one, relatives can still give the court important information on the child's background, medical history—even her likes and dislikes. They might also be able to recommend alternative placements with family friends and help to maintain important family connections for children regardless of where they end up."
The information and insight family members can provide are especially important for CASA volunteers who have been tasked with especially difficult cases. "Because there are often more cases than volunteers, we sometimes get the cases that need the most attention," says Jennifer Miller, a child welfare policy expert and CASA volunteer in Providence, Rhode Island. "For kids living in shelters or group homes, children dealing with seriously addicted parents, or those in large sibling groups, we need to be asking how relatives can help—even if they are not a possible placement." Miller also points out that volunteers can also play a key role in assuring that children are placed and remain in safe and stable homes. "Family is vital, but we have to stop the practice of assuming that kids are automatically O.K. just because they are with grandparents or other relatives. The advantage of being a CASA (volunteer) is that we get to look at each case on an individual basis."
CASA Volunteers as Liaisons for Children and Families
Just as family members can deepen a CASA volunteer's understanding of a child's needs, volunteers can find new ways to support children as a "front-line" resource for caregiver families. When a child first enters the system, they can help overworked agency staff to identify and build strong relationships with grandparents and other relatives who might be willing able to provide temporary care for the child or ongoing emotional support to the child or the parents. By visiting frequently with their clients and their caregivers, CASA volunteers can also develop a relationship of trust and, where appropriate, act as liaison with agency personnel to ensure that children are getting the full range of foster care services and supports.
In addition to providing family members with information on available public benefits and support groups, CASA volunteers can also help relative caregivers learn to manage and monitor children's safe, consistent visitation with their birth parents. In situations where a child can be safely reunified with his or her birth parents, CASA volunteers can encourage relative caregivers to play a positive role in the child's return home. In cases where a child is unable to return home, CASA volunteers can help social workers and court personnel move the permanency process forward through adoption or guardianship. Finally, volunteers can help to ensure that grandparents and other relatives have an opportunity to share their perspectives on the child with the court and agency personnel in dependency hearings and related reviews.
In seeking out the information that only grandparents and other relatives can provide and by supporting caregivers who are raising almost one-third of the children in foster care, CASA volunteers can be an invaluable resource for agency and court decision makers and, most importantly, for the children they represent. "While caregivers carry the past, they can also help envision a better future for children. They are the bridge that many children stand on," says Carol Boyer. "If we really want to help kids, we need to do a better job of recognizing that."