By JULIE MINDA
Christina and Jason Wilson of Beaufort, S.C., got custody of Christina's cousin's two children 13 years ago. Later, they opened their home and hearts to the children's two siblings. They could not anticipate the trials — and joys &mdash to come.
Christina and Jason Wilson initially were kinship caregivers to the four children of Christina's cousin and have since adopted them all. This is the group's first family photo, taken in 2009. From left are Ashleigh, Cady Evelyn, Christina, Aidan, Jason and Emily.
Christina's cousin had lost custody over ongoing mental health issues and drug addiction. The children had been separated from each other and cycled through multiple foster home placements. Christina says love of family would not permit her and her husband to "desert" the children to the foster care system; and so, in 2003, they took in Cady Evelyn, then 17 months old, and Emily, then 5 months old. In 2009, Ashleigh, then age 4, and Aidan, then age 2, joined their sisters. The Wilsons have since adopted all four siblings. (Jason also has a son, Jacob, age 24, from a prior relationship.)
"The biggest joy, by far, is to look at the four of them and know that they wouldn't be together if we hadn't fought so very hard to give them one another," says Wilson, age 38. But, she acknowledges, the couple has "faced many challenges." From time to time, three of the children have exhibited extreme anger, sadness, defiance, mood swings and other trauma symptoms connected to the loss of their biological mother and their unstable home life while in the foster system.
Early on, the Wilsons had to sell assets to pay for mounting day care bills and other expenses. And, from 2003 through 2014, when the last adoption was completed, they struggled to navigate the onerous child welfare and court system.
But, Wilson says, their experience becoming parents to these children has been "hugely rewarding. For my husband and I, it was life-altering in ways we could have never imagined."
Child welfare practitioners call people who take in relatives or other loved ones, kinship caregivers. Wilson is part of a group of such providers that has been sharing their stories with legislators and others on behalf of the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina, based in Columbia.
The foundation's three-year-old Kinship Care Initiative aims to build awareness of the significant needs of kinship caregivers and their families and to advocate that they receive better access to public resources, says Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, the foundation's vice president of initiatives and public policy. The effort includes legislative advocacy, research, collaboration and increasing public and legislator awareness of kinship caregivers. The foundation makes grants to organizations that offer direct services to these families. It hosts trainings for social service providers.
According to a policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national philanthropy partnering in the initiative, there are more than 2.7 million children — or about one in 11 kids — in kinship care in the U.S. Among black youth, about one in five children live with a relative or family friend. Kinship care has increased by about 18 percent nationally over the last decade; and the growth is expected to continue, according to the report.
Cooper-Lewter says there are many reasons children may be unable to live with a biological parent, including abuse, neglect, military deployment, parental death, substance abuse, domestic violence, physical or mental illness, disability or incarceration. Some of the cases involve state child protective services, welfare departments and the court system.
Motivated by their love of the children — and often to keep the children out of the foster care system or to keep siblings together — grandparents, aunts, uncles, godparents or other relatives or friends will welcome the displaced children to their home. Most often, kinship caregivers are grandparents.
According to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, kinship caregivers are "more likely to be poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed than families in which at least one parent is present." Commonly, says Cooper-Lewter, kinship caregivers are nearing or in retirement and living on a fixed income. The added expense for food, clothing and school supplies can be a hardship.
It is usual, says Cooper-Lewter, for kinship care placements to unfold quickly — an unforeseen tragic event or the intervention of a child welfare authority who determines a child is unsafe with the parent may be the driver. Cooper-Lewter says those taking in infants often must scramble to get cribs, car seats and other costly necessities.
Kim Clifton is executive director of Helping and Lending Outreach Support. The North Charleston, S.C., nonprofit provides direct services to kinship caregivers and their families and is a significant partner in the Sisters of Charity Foundation's Kinship Care Initiative. Clifton says that while many kinship caregivers struggle financially, few are aware of — and thus few take advantage of — the financial aid and other resources available to them.
Kinship caregivers often don't know that they may be able to become licensed as a foster provider and get a financial stipend and other aid. If they don't seek a license when the children are first placed with them, the opportunity expires. In South Carolina Cooper-Lewter says families typically have between 90 and 120 days to get licensed.
Kinship caregivers, from left, Delores Wright, David Jenkins and Wanda Izzard take part in a kinship care support group meeting early last year. The nonprofit Helping and Lending Outreach Support hosts the support group.
Also, according to the Annie E. Casey report, while significant percentages of kinship caregivers are eligible for government benefits like food stamps, Medicaid and housing help, only a small percentage access the aid.
Much of the Sisters of Charity Foundation's advocacy work aims to reduce barriers to aid for kinship caregivers and to increase their knowledge of the aid that is available.
Beyond practical challenges, kinship caregivers commonly struggle with extremely complex family relationships, says Cooper-Lewter. Grandparents may have strained relationships with their own adult children, who may have a history of drug and alcohol abuse. The grandparents may fear their unstable adult child will reenter the grandchildren's lives before they have straightened out their own.
Whatever it takes
Cooper-Lewter and Clifton say through their work and through "listening sessions" and other meetings they've had to better understand the needs of these families, they've learned the stories of hundreds of selfless caregivers.
One couple who Cooper-Lewter has met through her work were raising five grandchildren of elementary through high school age. Despite both grandparents' significant health challenges, they had committed to keep the siblings together for as long as possible.
Another grandmother with custody of five grandchildren under age six was working a full-time job and was trying to figure out how to afford the increased expenses. That grandmother took part in a listening session, and she has received aid from Helping and Lending Outreach Support.
Still another grandmother got help from the same agency after she had exhausted all of her resources to keep two teen grandchildren with her. The three had been reduced to living in a run-down apartment with one mattress and no other furniture.
Cooper-Lewter says the majority of kinship caregivers she meets have a strong faith in God, and a remarkable capacity for resilience and resourcefulness.
Wilson says becoming a caregiver to distressed children and then becoming their adoptive mother inspired her to change careers. She went back to school to earn her master's degree and is now the executive director of the nonprofit Child Abuse Prevention Association, a job she considers a calling.
"My life's purpose became clear once these babies entered our lives," she says.
Even small acts of kindness can help kinship caregivers
With kinship caregiving becoming increasingly common in the U.S., chances are good that most people know someone in this position, according to Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, vice president of initiatives and public policy for the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. She recommends that people learn more about the needs of the kinship caregivers they know, and that they offer to help the caregivers.
"Look around and see the need," she encourages.
Even seemingly small acts of service can make a significant impact in the lives of caregivers, she says. Cooper-Lewter says one woman she has met through her work was "barely holding it together" raising three grandchildren. Two members of her church pitched in, and now regularly provide meals and help with laundry.
Christina Wilson and her husband adopted her cousin's four young children. She says, "At 38, my four kids exhaust me at the end of the day. I can't possibly imagine repeating it at age 65 with toddlers, and that is the sad reality for a good many" kinship caregivers.
Wilson suggests offering kinship caregivers babysitting, a dinner out or just a friendly ear.
"Kinship care can be a very lonely — albeit rewarding — experience," Wilson says.
— JULIE MINDA
Copyright © 2017 by the Catholic Health Association
of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.