Aug. 11, 2016 – By now, those of us tuned into the Rio Olympics have heard of Simone Biles’ remarkable journey as the world’s most celebrated gymnast and as a child from foster care adopted by her grandparents.
As is the case of many great Olympians, the story behind the making of this Gold-medal winner can be as equally powerful and instructive as her athletic performance. Biles’ childhood story has struck a chord with many foster, adoptive and kinship families across the continents because it is so familiar.
After her biological mother and father couldn’t care for her because of their struggles with drug and alcohol addiction, Biles and her sister spent four years in foster homes until her maternal grandfather and his wife, Ron and Nellie Biles, adopted them. By Biles’ own account, the couple created a loving and secure home and one that provided her with opportunities to hone her extraordinary abilities on display before the world today. They also kept the sisters together, an issue raised time and time again by young people in the foster care system at our most recent KidSpeak.
In Michigan, the new role that grandparents assume when their children can no longer care for their own children is far from unordinary. It is estimated that nearly one-third of children in the state’s welfare system are placed with grandparents and many others are cared for by grandparents outside the system. This has become a growing trend in our society for a variety of social and economic reasons. Lack of parental support services to address drug and alcohol addiction, mental health concerns, and financial distresses leading to circumstances unconducive to child rearing continue to upend families and fuel this change in family structure.
Last October we highlighted the experience of one grandparent-turned-mom again, Deb Frisbie from the Grand Traverse area, after she joined other caregivers and policymakers in Lansing and shared what makes their situation work and how our public policies could better support families like Frisbie’s. I returned to Frisbie recently to discuss grandparent needs and found her continuing to work as an advocate for other grandparents and older adults raising young children who are facing foster care or in foster care.
Near or in retirement, older adults who are starting over as parents have financial limitations and frequently health concerns that make child-rearing more than an Olympic feat, even when the desire to raise one’s own kin is best for the children and all involved, Frisbie says. Once children are adopted from foster care, adoption subsidies are non-existent except for children with special needs, and those are often limited. Providing basic needs and health insurance for children often drains retirement accounts leaving adults’ own future well-being at risk. Because of such struggles, it may be advantageous for families to remain as guardians because of new assistance resources available, but those are again inadequate, Frisbie says.
Delays within state systems continue to be raised as a barrier by young people and caregivers. Frisbie has worked with one friend recently who assumed care for her three granddaughters when their mother was imprisoned. She was advised to seek a foster care license in which public support would enable her to raise the girls. After entering the review process six months ago, she continues to wait for that assistance while caring for the children. She’s already drained her savings account and is now worried she won’t make her next house payment.
Another barrier: We don’t have good information about grandparents and other family members raising children. According to Frisbie and other family advocates, better support is needed for the many families who are offering the best, loving support for children, and ultimately saving society the financial and personal costs of maintaining too many children and youth in a system without a permanent caregiver.
But to do that, we need to have a much better sense of who the caregivers are, in the child welfare system and out of it, and know more about their circumstances and challenges. Without a more consistent and reliable accounting of these families and their struggles, we are turning a blind eye to real needs and future solutions.
Teri Banas is a communications consultant working for Michigan’s Children.