27 Nov New Kinship Program Helps Relative Caregivers Find Support

By Diane Terry and Nicole A. Powell

Relative caregivers celebrate their graduation from a training program to become "navigators," offering peer support in Community Coalition's new Families Helping Families program.

Relative caregivers celebrate their graduation from a training program to become “navigators,” offering peer support in Community Coalition’s new Families Helping Families program.

Annie Burton had long since finished raising her only son when her 14-year-old granddaughter came to live with her. She found herself in the new and challenging position of being a parent again —in her 60s.

“This is completely new to me,” she said about the transition.

Burton’s story is not uncommon. Family members who are raising other family members’ children — often called “relative caregivers” — have always been an important part of the safety net in many communities. But the criminalization of addiction, prison expansion and the policies of the war on drugs have put more and more children in danger of foster care.

In 2012, the Casey Foundation estimated that 330,000 children are in kinship households in California. In Los Angeles County more than 50% of children needing care are placed with relatives, according to the Department of Children and Family Services.

Despite the overwhelming presence of caregivers, county and statewide programs to assist caregivers in these roles are lacking, said Joseph Devall, who directs Families Helping Families, a kinship service and advocacy program at Community Coalition. “Foster parents typically have access to services for the children in their care through foster family agencies. In contrast, no formal system of care for kin providers exists,” Devall explained.

Instead, relatives often find themselves thrust into parental roles unexpectedly with little knowledge of how to navigate the child welfare, education or other systems. Many are elderly or already struggling financially. They are required to attend court hearings, arrange social worker visits and ensure their homes comply with standards, all with little assistance even though the County has $2 billion in aid for foster children.

Community Coalition launched Families Helping Families to address these challenges by organizing grandmothers and other relatives to encourage the creation of more community-based social services. The program begins by connecting kinship families to the support systems needed to raise healthy and thriving children, Devall said.

“But we also connect them to other South L.A. relative caregivers, who personally understand how to navigate the system and who have also become empowered,” Devall pointed out. “They go from learning how to navigate the foster care system and being victimized by it to becoming leaders capable of challenging the disparities within it.”

Caregivers first work with a specialist who helps develop an individualized family plan identifying the types of support services needed. Burton received assistance accessing medical care and financial help for her granddaughter. She also got hooked into a network of parental support. “They actually share experience of what you should look for. No one is putting you down or getting in your business. They just help,” Burton said.

As one of the few programs focused on relative caregivers, Families Helping Families is creating a new model that integrates community organizing and social services, helping to turn once isolated relatives into powerful change agents, proponents say.

“It advocates for developments in the systems that control relative care by expanding knowledge within the community,” said Barbara Facher, a social worker for the Alliance of Children’s Rights, one of the agencies involved in Families Helping Families.

Burton now refers other caregivers to the program. She plans to maintain the peer connections she has made through the program. “Everyone has been super helpful,” she noted. “It’s taken a lot of stress out of my head.”

Terry is a consultant and Powell an intern with Community Coalition.

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