September is National Recovery Month and Kinship Care Awareness Month. Each is important in its own right, but they also have a unique connection.
This year’s National Recovery Month theme, “Every person. Every family. Every community.” reminds us that no one is immune to the risks and impact of substance use disorders (SUDs) and mental health conditions. Kinship Care Awareness Month aims to increase the visibility of the growing number of kinship families and grandfamilies. Both offer an opportunity for us to consider how we can better support our family, friends and neighbors, as well as an opportunity to increase awareness of the resources that are available.
These two observances also are linked in another way: Many kinship families and grandfamilies are formed as a result of substance misuse by parents who can longer raise their children.
When parents can no longer care for their children, there is no one better suited to step in than grandparents, extended family, and close “family-like” friends. But providing that care can come at a cost to the caregivers’ own physical, mental, and financial health and well-being. To help address these important issues, earlier this month, ACL released the first-ever National Strategy to Support Family Caregivers. It was developed through a collaboration of the Advisory Council to Support Grandparents Raising Children and the Recognize, Assist, Include, Support, and Engage (RAISE) Act Family Caregiving Advisory Council.
As National Recovery Month and Kinship Care Month both come to a close, we wanted to hear about the impact of the intersection of SUDs and kinship care from professionals who work every day to support the needs of kin and grandparent caregivers. We spoke to:
- Ana Beltran, who directs the ACL-funded Grandfamilies & Kinship Support Network: A National Technical Assistance Center.
- Patrick Donavan, a supervisor with Muskingum County (Ohio) Adult and Child Protective Services, who recently served on the Advisory Council to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
In the Q&A below, they discuss why it is important for the aging and disability networks to understand the role that kinship families and grandfamilies play in supporting individuals affected by substance use disorders, including children, and how best to assist them.
- Why is it important for the aging and disability networks to engage with issues related to substance misuse and recovery?
Ana Beltran: Over 2.4 million grandparents – in addition to countless other relatives and close family friends – have been stepping up to raise children whose parents can no longer raise them, often as a result of parental alcohol misuse and SUDs. The latest drug epidemic – the opioid crisis – has resulted in a sharp rise in the drug overdose death rate, particularly among those of childbearing age, causing more kinship families and grandfamilies to form.
Patrick Donavan: Unfortunately, substance misuse and recovery are topics being talked about not only in the professional arena but at dinner tables of youth and their caregivers. In Ohio, more than 227,000 children under the age of 18 live in homes where the caregivers are relatives other than their parents, and of these, more than 183,000 live with grandparents. An astounding number of these children came into the care of the child welfare system due to SUDs of their parents. In an Appalachian County in Ohio with a population of 86,410, over 1200 children are being raised by kinship caregivers. A review of these children in kinship care found that over 60 percent of their parents were abusing substances which led to agency involvement. Also, in our county the average age of our kinship caregivers is 51 years. Although we do have kinship caregivers with disabilities who are appropriately caring for children, their need for support is increased. As an agency it is important for us to keep this in mind when we are supporting our kinship community.
- How does your organization work to support kinship families and grandfamilies?
Patrick Donavan: Muskingum County Adult and Child Protective Services (MCACPS) has strived to make kinship support part of our fabric and culture. We support over 500 families in Muskingum County. We have dedicated staff to support differing levels of kinship care (formal and informal). We hold outings for caregivers (when COVID levels allow), send newsletters, hold fundraisers and provide questionnaires to make sure families are getting what is important to them.
Arguably one of the most important things that we do to support kinship families and grandfamilies is working directly with them making sure that they not only know what sorts of programs are available, but work with them to actually get this assistance. For more than 20 years MCACPS was a Title IV-E Waiver County and helped to produce the first evidence-based Kinship Navigator Program (Kinship Support Intervention). We are also an Ohio Kinship and Adoption Navigator site that is currently working to try and get what could be the second evidence-based kinship navigator program.
Ana Beltran: Generations United currently has two major initiatives underway to support grandparents, other relatives, close family friends, and the children they raise when their parents cannot do so. For almost twenty-five years, Generations United’s National Center on Grandfamilies has been a leading voice for the families. Center staff conduct federal advocacy and train grandfamilies to advocate for themselves. The Center raises awareness about the strengths and needs of the families through media outreach, publications, biweekly communications, and events.
As of the fall of 2021, Generations United, along with five national partners and an array of subject matter experts, is running the first-ever national technical assistance center on grandfamilies and kinship families, known as the Grandfamilies & Kinship Support Network. The Network is supported through a cooperative agreement with ACL. The Network exists, free of charge, to offer a new way for government agencies and nonprofit organizations in states, tribes, and territories to collaborate and work across jurisdictional and systemic boundaries – all to improve supports and services for grandfamilies and kinship families now and into the future.
- How have the challenges faced by kinship families and grandfamilies changed in recent years? What trends are you seeing?
Ana Beltran: The COVID-19 pandemic created new kinship families and grandfamilies and heightened challenges for existing families. With almost half of all grandparent caregivers aged 60 and older, 25 percent with disabilities, and a disproportionate number identifying as Black and/or indigenous, these caregivers have been more likely than many to contract the virus and die as a result. During the pandemic, 140,000 children lost a parent or other caregiver to COVID-19. Without automatic legal relationships with the children in their care, these kin/grandfamily caregivers need help making alternative caregiving plans and accessing services that may only be available to parents or those caregivers who have gone through a formal process to obtain a legal relationship with the children.
Patrick Donavan: The pandemic heightened many existing stressors for all families and added some new challenges. For example, behavioral issues have long been a natural consequence of children being removed from their parents, but the complexity of some of the behaviors seems to have been magnified in recent years. Children home during the pandemic added stress on the aging caregivers. The emergence of video conferencing is a good example. This technology continues to be overwhelming for aging caregivers. Yet, they find themselves in situations where they have to provide for the basic needs such as health care and education by using this new technology to them.
- The theme of 2022 National Recovery Month is “Every person. Every family. Every community.” How does that theme also apply to kinship families and grandfamilies?
Ana Beltran: Across the nation, over 2.7 million children are being raised by grandparents, other relatives, and close family friends. These caregivers and children are in every community, spanning the spectrum of races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic situations. We all know someone who is raising kin or is being raised by kin. Like many individuals and families, kinship families and grandfamilies are impacted by SUDs and should be part of the conversations and the recoveries. As providers, we need to ensure that our language and outreach encompass them and respond to their unique strengths and challenges.
Patrick Donavan: Over the course of 20 years in the field of kinship I have personally had the opportunity to work with thousands of kinship families and grandfamilies. There is a common misconception that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Some have a misconception that if the caregiver had a child that struggled with substance misuse then they possibly have an SUD as well, or that they could possibly raise another child with the same issues. Most of the caregivers that we have supported through the years have no personal history of addiction and have a lot of great parenting experience. There are kinship caregivers throughout our community. Most every agency that I collaborate with have at least one kinship caregiver on staff.
These caregivers are so important to help care for and raise our next generation. Every person, every family, and every community needs support sometimes. Being prepared to give it is so important.
- What advice do you have for aging and disability service providers to make their programs more responsive to the needs of kinship families and grandfamilies?
Patrick Donavan: Aging and disability service providers encounter kinship and grandfamilies daily. In order to make sure that they are taking a well-rounded holistic approach to the family they need to have knowledge of kinship programs in the area. One approach would be to educate during onboarding with new employees whether that be a formal training of some sort or just a knowledge base of who to refer to when they have a family. Having information from the Grandfamilies & Kinship Support Network would be a good resource for some of these providers. The identification of a kinship champion within their catchment area would be another way to have a go to person that could actually team up with the service provider. On more of a grass roots level, just having the soft skills to be able to understand that kinship and grandfamilies may struggle more with technology and some of the jargon that many providers have become accustomed to using. Lastly, understanding that if the children are exhibiting unusual behaviors (e.g., aggression, signs of depression, unruly/delinquency, etc.) that this is not necessarily the result of the kinship or grandfamilies parenting style but the result of trauma that the child has endured over an extended period of time (sometimes for many years).
Ana Beltran: Many, if not most, aging and disability service providers support kinship families and grandfamilies, often without realizing it. It is important that providers ask those they serve if they are raising kin and how they can support them. For those caregivers not already served, outreach efforts should be tailored to these unique families, many of whom lack formal legal relationships between the caregivers and children. Use inclusive language, such as “caregivers” and “families,” rather than “parents” or “guardians.” Also, ensure that your providers look and have life experiences similar to those they are serving – peer supports, as they are known, have been shown over and over to be truly effective.
Decades of research prove that there are many benefits to placing children with kin who know them, their culture, or their roots, rather than with strangers who lack those connections. That trove of research is why there has been a federal preference for placing children with relatives for almost thirty years, and why all states also have these preferences. Kin-first is an important concept that many states, tribes, and territories have embraced, but they need help getting there. The new Grandfamilies & Kinship Support Network is ready to help.
The Advisory Council to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren is charged with identifying, promoting, coordinating, and disseminating to the public information, resources, and the best practices available to help grandparents and other older relatives both meet the needs of the children in their care; and maintain their own physical and mental health and emotional well-being.