Q. My husband and I recently took in my cousin’s children when he and his ex-wife could no longer care for them. They’ve settled in, but are there any future challenges we should look out for?
A. There’s a set of challenges that most non-parental full-time caregivers of children will face. I’ll address those later, but first I want to mention some possible challenges unique to your situation.
Birth parents can be wild cards in cases of kids raised by relatives. They can act in ways that range from helpful and agreeable to fully non-cooperative (such as, refusing to sign anything, being impossible to reach or asking for money). They may swing frequently from good behavior to bad and back again. It’s usually best to stay calm and non-committal. If they say something you don’t like or can’t agree to, a helpful phrase is, “Let me think on that. We can talk later.” The hope is the birth parent will change his or her stance in the meantime.
Never threaten to give the kids back if the birth parents are non-cooperative. Even a non-serious threat sabotages the stability you’ve promised. The kids could overhear your threat, but even if they don’t, they’re good at reading signals.
Even the best kids get around to saying, “I hate you,” which is kid talk for “I don’t like your stupid rules.” And these kids can also say, “You’re not my mother. You’re not the boss of me.” Again, your best response is to stay calm. Sometimes I try this: “Let’s switch places. I’m you and you’re me. Give me two good reasons why I have to do what you’ve asked.”
Keep in mind that in even the best home situations, kids can feel emotions they need help with, such as feeling abandoned, lonely, unworthy or angry. Do your best to let the kids know whatever emotions they’re feeling are valid, and ask them what would help them. Often, children have good ideas about what helps. You might consider periodic therapy with a mental health professional.
Other challenges you’ll face include proving your right to make health care decisions or receive information from doctors, schools and other entities. You should seek legal advice to determine if you must petition for guardianship or fill out forms about being custodial parents. Keep copies handy in case one of the children needs emergency care. Note that the Austin Bar Association’s Lawyer Referral Service can refer you to an experienced attorney.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) published a policy statement this year entitled “Needs of Kinship Care Families and Pediatric Practice.” The paper says more children are living with relatives than before; there’s increasing evidence that children are better off with extended family rather than nonrelated foster parents; the risk for behavioral health problems is greater in children not living with biological parents; and pediatricians should pay closer attention to children with guardianship arrangements.
The AAP also says pediatricians should provide full-time kinship caregivers information about the resources they’ll need: community legal services and navigator programs like childWelfare.gov that help them identify and access services. Some families need resources for learning parenting skills or self-care. The AAP says that these children need more frequent follow-up visits and more in-depth evaluation, because they have many of the same needs as other foster children.
You’re smart to anticipate challenges and have a plan to deal with them. And you’re to be commended for providing a safe and nurturing environment for children in need.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LOPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.
Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!