Helping Navigate Kinship Care
UMaine part of a $1.8 million initiative to increase assistance to extended families raising young relatives
Wendy and her husband had long sensed trouble in the home of their son, his wife and granddaughter. There was arguing, fighting, alcohol abuse and, they suspected, drugs.
Their suspicions were confirmed at 2:30 one morning when their son, in a fight with his wife, called them for help. Things were out of control and he worried about his two stepchildren and the couple’s newborn daughter. Wendy’s husband went straight to the house to calm things.
The next day, says Wendy, who lives just outside Bangor, Maine, “my son confided in me and said he and his wife were junkies and couldn’t care for their daughter.”
Wendy and her husband went to the courthouse to fill out guardianship request forms that would begin a confusing, intimidating entry into a world of bureaucracy, all complicated by their unfamiliarity with the legal processes.
“I was starting to stress out because I didn’t know if I needed a lawyer. I didn’t know what a guardian ad litem was. We didn’t know anything,” Wendy says.
Families And Children Together changed that.
At the courthouse, Wendy found a booklet from Maine Kids-Kin, a program of Families And Children Together. It explained the different types of guardianships. It had a directory of family law lawyers and listed services that could be available for relatives caring for children whose parents cannot care for them.
For the past 11 years, Families And Children Together has had offices for its Maine Kids-Kin program in Bangor and Westbrook, Maine. Last fall, a three-year initiative called the Maine Kinship Connections Project was launched in Maine and provides staff “navigators” to further help families in the legal, social services and foster care systems. It provides grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings and other family members who are raising relatives’ children with such services as information and referrals on issues ranging from legal to mental health; individualized case management; resources on children’s special needs; and support and activity groups.
The new navigator service, one of three components of a $1.8 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, involves several agencies that support children and families, including Families And Children Together, and the University of Maine Center on Aging and School of Social Work. It is designed to streamline the adoption or guardianship process for relatives — grandparents in particular. The project began taking its first referrals for the free services in March.
Other collaborating partners include the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and Casey Family Services, which will offer second and third components of the grant, facilitating family team meetings for families with a relative child and family finding (searching for relatives who could be a resource). In conjunction, Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine will offer consultation and training on kinship issues and access to additional resources for kin providers, including community discounts and camp scholarships.
UMaine’s School of Social Work and Center on Aging will evaluate the components of the Maine Kinship Connections Project for the consortium and the U.S. DHHS.
“With this research grant, we are exploring what level of service is most helpful to provide to relative caregivers in Maine,” says Barbara Kates, director of the Maine Kids-Kin program. “What it means at the end of it all is: Do we try to provide a more intensive service, at the time a child comes into a relative’s home, possibly to fewer families? Or is it better to provide fewer services to more families?”
The project is a continuation of work the Center on Aging and Families And Children Together have done collaboratively for almost a decade — helping to establish the same legal rights and resources for grandparents as are available for foster families. Kates and Len Kaye, Center on Aging director, argue that loving and familiar relatives can be more suitable caregivers than unfamiliar foster families.
“This is really addressing some of the barriers that kinship families have faced in the past,” says Jennifer Crittenden, senior research associate at the Center on Aging. “Because we’re a research center, we did a needs assessment for mental health services for families and have been developing tip sheets and resources for kinship families.”
In trying to evaluate the most effective ways to help relative families and reduce the stress and anxiety of guardianship issues, Kates says the navigators will offer families similar services but in different ways to see which are best.
She expects as many as 50 families a year will receive navigator assistance — from consultations about the child’s behavior to assistance with paperwork for going to court for custody decisions.
“Any time you can do research to evaluate effectiveness, it’s wonderful,” Kates says. “It’s going to help us determine what’s the best bang for the buck.”
Wendy recently told her story about her son and his family at the first of what will be ongoing training sessions for staff members from the cooperating organizations. She and her husband now have full custody of their granddaughter, and Wendy believes the navigator part of the project will help families like hers.
“I know people who are taking care of their grandchildren, but they don’t have the legal means to back them up,” she says. Without the navigators, “I think an awful lot of kids would wind up in the system with foster care instead of with grandparents and with family.”