March 29, 2018 – Over the past several months, I’ve been researching kinship care and talking to advocates to learn more about the issues caregivers face. I recently had the opportunity to meet with some informal kinship caregivers (not licensed foster parents) and hear about their challenges first-hand. Reading about the issues and hearing second-hand stories gave me an abstract overview of the situation. However, listening to caregivers tell their stories and imagining what it might be like to face their daily struggles made a much greater impact on me. Conversations often focus on the needs of children, and it’s vitally important that they do, but they don’t always focus on the needs of their caregivers. A child’s well-being is affected by the well-being of the entire family, so the needs of caregivers are important too.
As I listened to kinship caregivers tell their stories, some major themes began to emerge – feelings of isolation, loss of identity, lack of respite, and financial strain. These individuals spend most their time caring for children and have very little if any, time for themselves. Caregivers noted that one big barrier to relieving these stressors is the lack of affordable childcare, which prohibits them from working, finding respite, and interacting with other adults. Caregivers also expressed frustration over the amount of time spent talking with DHHS staff who were unwilling to assist them or were unfamiliar with the types of assistance available to children in informal kinship care. Trying to navigate the system without the support of knowledgeable staff prevented some caregivers from accessing available services.
Overall, the lack of support kinship caregivers receive is discouraging. These individuals are entrusted with the care of one of our most vulnerable populations, yet they cannot access the resources they need to ensure they and the children in their care thrive.
In a recent article about kinship care, I outlined some recommendations for addressing issues kinship families face. One recommendation was to learn more about the needs of this population. In addition to collecting and studying data, I urge legislators to meet with kinship caregivers and listen to both their stories and their suggestions on how to address the issues they face. Data only tells part of the story. The people living these experiences are essential in completing the narrative.
Another recommendation I made was to establish a statewide Kinship Navigator program. A recently passed federal act called the Family First Prevention Services Act would allow the state to develop one of these programs. The act provides federal funding for states to implement Kinship Navigator Programs that provide support to kinship caregivers, helps them complete paperwork, and links them with available services and other resources. The state would have to develop and fund the program, but the federal government would reimburse the state for up to 50% of the cost. It is imperative that any such program is available to both formal and informal kinship caregivers as both types of caregivers need support. Additionally, the program should provide the options for kinship caregivers to call and speak to a trained navigator or schedule a face-to-face meeting if needed. Now is the time to urge Michigan legislators to fund the development of this essential program.
Sherry Boroto is an intern at Michigan’s Children and is currently in her final year of graduate school at Michigan State University where she is pursuing her master’s degree in social work.