Kinship caregivers have unique opportunities to provide nurturing care for children whose parents cannot parent them for a season. However, the pre-existing relationships you have with the child’s parents, whether they be your adult children, siblings, or another extended family, can complicate kinship care. You have a history with the parents, and you are also helping the child work through his history with them at the same time.
When the kinship placement is a temporary situation, how can you support reunification as the child’s caregiver? Here are some practical ways that you can support reunification as a kinship caregiver.
Supporting Reunification as a Kinship Caregiver
Make a plan with the children’s parents.
This plan should include clear goals and steps for reunification that you all work out together. Talk about what obstacles exist to achieve those goals. A few of the practical parts of a plan to consider would include:
- What visits and other contact looks like to each of you
- Therapeutic supports for each of you, like AA or NA, counseling, parenting classes, respite care
- Transportation to and from visits, technology to support video calls, etc.
- Family holidays and other celebrations
- Communication with and about the school, medical providers, and extra-curricular activities
- Gaps in the relationships among you and how to resolve those gaps
If you are already in a kinship caregiving relationship and have yet not agreed upon a plan, ask the birth family to talk about it now. It’s not too late to do so but prepare to compromise and negotiate on already-established routines or ways of interacting. Give extra grace and flexibility if proceeding with a structured plan now is not how the relationship started.
Show empathy for the parents’ challenges.
Put aside your judgments or pre-existing ideas about why the parents are struggling to try to understand their challenges clearly. Communicate instead that you “get” their pain and are willing to come alongside them and work with them through the issues.
Don’t put down the birth parents.
As much as you possibly can, speak highly of the child’s parents. Kids need to look up to and respect their parents, and you have an opportunity to support that. If you have a negative history with the birth parents, find a safe place outside of the relationship to work through those feelings.
Assure the children that their parents love them.
Just as kids need to look up to their parents, they also need reassurance that they are precious to their mom and dad.
Tell the parents that you know they love their child.
Parents who cannot care for their kids can carry a considerable weight of shame and guilt. Let the parents know that you don’t doubt their love for their kids. Tell them that you tell the kids their Mom and Dad love them.
Don’t put the kids in the middle.
Children in kinship care situations often come with many conflicted feelings about their circumstances. Don’t put the child in a position where he might feel the need to “choose sides.” These are adult problems. Children cannot and should not carry the weight of grown-up issues and divided loyalties.
Make visits a conflict-free zone.
If you are bringing the child to visits or facilitating contact by video calls, do everything in your power to avoid conflict with the birth family. If possible, refer to the plans that you made at the start of your kinship placement. Remind each other of your mutual agreements to keep adult conversations among the adults. If conflict begins, try to exit the situation graciously and calmly. Protect the child from being drawn into it.
Work out your disagreements away from the kids.
Disagreements and conflict are inevitable, especially if there is a messy family history between you. Differences of opinion will crop up. Again, refer to the agreed-upon plan that you made together when the child came to live with you. These adult conversations are necessary and deserve time and space to get resolved. Kids who have experienced trauma, neglect, or separation from their parents don’t understand adult emotions. They should not be in a situation where their loyalties feel conflicted.
Consider family counseling.
When your kinship child’s parent is also your adult child, counseling is an excellent support to consider. Long-standing habits can be re-wired for healthier dynamics in your family. Changing your family patterns is especially necessary with a history of broken trust or if the same disagreements keep coming up repeatedly. A lack of resolution for these issues can allow bitterness, resentment, or despair to creep in for all of you. Unresolved conflict and the resulting emotions will make it more complicated to approach future challenging circumstances for all of you. Kids who have experienced trauma, abuse, or neglect are often more sensitive to conflict, even if it’s not spoken out loud.
Support change in the parents.
It’s sometimes hard to believe in a person’s ability to change. However, if only for the child’s sake, try to find something inside of you that believes these parents can turn their lives around.
Make an effort to throw yourself behind the parents to support their ability to change. An experienced counselor or therapist can help you deal with your grief or unresolved feelings in your relationship with the child’s parents. You can then turn your energy to believe in them and in their ability to be the parents their child needs.
Maintain your connections.
Frequently in the foster community, foster parents stay in contact with the newly reunified family for support and connection. There is already a pre-existing familial connection in kinship care, but maintaining a nurturing and supportive relationship after reunification is vital. You’ve all spent this time working together toward healthy changes that are good for your family. Communicating to the child’s parents that you are there for them buffers them against the inevitable challenges in life.
We all need to know that someone is in our corner. After the work you’ve invested in this process, ongoing encouragement and support bring dignity and respect to the experience you had together.
Supporting Reunification Can Be Life-Changing
When your kinship caregiving goal is to reunify the child with his parents, you have an opportunity to impact the next generation of your family. Partnering with your family to navigate these complicated dynamics will show you all that families can heal, and people can change. New beginnings can be life-changing for you all.
- What do Kinship Caregivers Need to Succeed? a podcast from Creating a Family
- Partnering With Relatives to Promote Reunification, a factsheet from Child Welfare Information Gateway
- Partnering With Birth Parents to Promote Reunification, a factsheet from Child Welfare Information Gateway
Image Credits: Nenad Stojkovic; Clemens V. Vogelsang; Richard Ricciardi