For every child in the United States who is in foster care, about 25 are being raised by relatives outside the foster care system. Many of those these informal caregivers are grandparents. These statistics, compiled by Generations United, naturally make one wonder why so many families prefer informal arrangements for raising children when their family structures collapse. Why wouldn't all involved want the financial benefits and other assistance available for foster parents?
The answer is complicated.
Why Relative Caregivers
First, let's talk about why it's desirable for children in need of a home to be placed with relatives. Studies have shown that placements are more likely to be lasting when children are placed with relatives. In addition, kinship care allows children to stay connected with their family and cultural traditions. Children are more likely to be able to stay in the same general area with the same school assignment and same social circles. All of these considerations are important to children who have been experiencing instability in their lives but who desperately need stability.
Another advantage of placement with relatives is that it avoids, for the most part, the problem of aging out of the foster care system. When foster children turn 18 and graduate from high school, they are considered to have "aged out" of foster care, and they can be thrust into the adult world with very little support.
This abrupt transition is less likely to happen to those who are fostered by family members.
The value of kinship care was officially recognized in the United States in 2008 with the passage of Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. This act was designed to make it easier for grandparents and other relatives to take in children, reducing the number of children in non-relative foster care.
The act also provides incentives for kinship caregivers to formalize their arrangement through adoption. Although it is a federal law, it is implemented through the states. As a result, some states are further along in implementation than others.
Grandparents who are over the age of 55 are eligible for certain types of assistance through the National Family Caregiver Support Program (NFCSP). This program was created by a 2000 act. It is designed to help family caregivers get needed services, which can range from financial assistance to counseling or legal services. Originally grandparents had to be 60 to be eligible, but the age has been lowered to 55.
Age and Health as Barriers to Placement
In spite of the existence of support services, some social workers are reluctant to place children with grandparents, often citing age- and health-related concerns.
Foster care workers may question whether grandparents are able-bodied enough to care for children. They may also be worried about what will happen to the children in case of serious illness or death.
Clearly, whether parents or foster parents are young or old, the future is never certain. Many individuals today maintain excellent health and vitality into their later years. Younger foster parents have their own challenges. For example, some young foster parents are having and rearing young children of their own in addition to caring for foster children. Grandparents are unlikely to be still bearing or raising young children and can concentrate on their foster children.
Some placement workers may feel that it is more natural for children to be with younger caregivers. However, when foster children have to leave their parents, they are leaving their "natural" setting. Whether they are placed with younger or older foster parents is not nearly as important as the relationship they are able to develop. There's no "right" age to serve as a foster parent.
Problems Arising From Family Traits and Connections
As wrong as it may be, placement workers sometimes assume that certain types of problems "run in the family." They may be concerned that whatever traits caused difficulty in the child's home life may also be present in the grandparents' home. Some may even feel that grandparents may be somehow at fault if their children have parenting struggles.
It's important to remember that children enter foster care for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes children need placement due to circumstances that are not the fault of the parents, such as mental or physical health issues.And even though family dysfunction may be the reason foster care is needed, the whole family is seldom dysfunctional. In many families with a dysfunctional parent, other family members are excellent, high-functioning parents. Each prospective foster parent should be judged on his or her own merits and not assumed to share the negative traits of other family members.
Sometimes social workers worry that a child placed with a relative will be allowed contact with the parents. If the parents are substance abusers or have been guilty of abuse or neglect, the possibility of contact with them is certainly a valid concern. In such cases, the parents are usually required to meet certain requirements before they will be allowed to see their children. Social workers may worry that the grandparents will circumvent the system and give them access to the children before it is properly allowed.
This concern should not, however, disqualify grandparents from becoming foster parents. Grandparents who end up parenting their grandchildren are usually highly aware of the parents' circumstances and do not want to expose the children to any extra risk or stress. All kinship caregivers should be trained in how to handle such situations and should have ready access to support if a parent becomes persistent about wanting to see a child.
Differing Standards for Kinship Caregivers
One issue that once kept many relatives from fostering children is that they were expected to meet all the same criteria as non-relative foster parents. Today we have recognized that fostering by a relative is quite different from other types of foster care, and the same standards don't have to apply.
For example, foster parents have to meet certain housing standards. These may be waived in the case of relative caregivers, as the advantage of placing the child in a home that he or she is familiar with may be considered to be more important than the size of the home. Also, the training that most foster parents must undergo may be deferred in order to get the child into a relative's home in a timely manner. Some social workers would prefer that all caregivers meet the same requirements, but kinship care advocates say that relative caregivers should be given latitude in some areas, especially those which they may be unable to remedy, such as adding a room to a house.
While many grandparents are perfectly competent, especially those who have spent a lot of time babysitting grandchildren, some may have lack necessary knowledge or skills. For example, they may not be up-to-date on the best parenting practices. If they are allowed to bypass the training that foster parents typically undergo, these deficiencies may not be remedied. A competent social worker can assess whether a parenting class is necessary.
When the Time Isn't Right
On the other hand, it is also vital that grandparents not be pressured to foster a grandchild unless the placement is right. Social workers should not suggest that if they do not accept the placement, they may lose contact with the child. Grandparents should not take on the fostering role unless they are fairly confident in their ability to carry out the responsibilities, because children should not be bounced from one setting to another.
Many times grandparents who end up taking care of grandchildren are themselves living in financial need. They may also have health issues, and the combination of financial pressures and poor health may result in debilitating stress. That's not to say that grandparents with some issues should be barred from fostering. They will, however, need to go into the situation with eyes wide open and lots of support from social services. They may need help locating and applying for financial aid. They may need legal services. They may also need access to respite care.
What If the Family Is Reunified?
About half of all foster children eventually return home. Grandparents who take on the role of foster parents must realize that reunification of the family is a possibility. They must be prepared for the possibility of their grandchildren being taken from their homes and returned to their parents.
This is, of course, an issue for all foster parents, many of whom develop deep bonds with foster children. But the dynamics can be a little different for grandparents who are foster parents, who may have had a front row seat for the ongoing family drama.
Of course, if half of families are reunified, for the other half, the split is permanent. In those cases, the door is open for grandparents to obtain legal custody or adopt their grandchildren if they would like to do so.
In summary, although grandparent foster care may seem to present a host of possible problems, such placements are worth pursuing in many cases because of the high degree of commitment exhibited by the grandparents, a commitment that can result in excellent outcomes for children.