Supporting Family Caregivers

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The Central Coast Children’s Foundation, Inc.
Occasional Paper # 5

Ties That Bind: Supporting the Growing Ranks of Family Caregivers

by Adam Joseph

Imagine a 2:30 A.M. call from a local law enforcement officer: “Can you come pick up your grandchildren?” The police have arrested both parents for drug involvement, leaving your three grandchildren, Janet, age 6, and the twins, Michael and Mary, age 2, without a home. You’re the only safe relative identified to take the children…immediately. If you don’t, they will go into emergency foster care in different homes, may be separated from you and from each other, and you may lose any future control over what happens to them.

You are a 58-year-old widow living in a one-bedroom apartment. How will you feed them, house them, find child care while you’re at work? The problems multiply. They have no medical insurance. They’re already having trouble at school, which is on the other side of town. Predictably, there may be emotional problems stemming from neglect or even abuse But the kids are family; and you take them in.

The reasons may vary: illness, drug addiction, imprisonment, death. But whatever the causes, the numbers are growing- in Monterey County, in California, throughout the United States. Aunts, uncles, cousins, even young adult siblings are stepping up to the plate when birth parents become unavailable.  Two and a half million grandparents in America are now rearing their grandchildren. One out of every five of these caregiver families is in California; and most of them are poor. More than 95,000 California caregiver families are at or below the poverty level; and they receive no public assistance to meet the needs of the children in their care. Who can step in to help these caregivers who have stepped up to the plate at a crucial moment in the lives of these children? Who will provide them with that crucial lifeline they so obviously need?

In Monterey County, it’s the Kinship Center’s Family Ties program that is leading the way in helping to fill in the gaps for these caregiver families- the lack of public assistance, the need for resource and referral services, respite care for the caregivers, parenting education, assistance in obtaining guardianship or adoption, support groups, mental health and tutoring services for the children, and on and on and on. And, while providing these crucial supports to hundreds of individual relative caregivers, Family Ties is also providing a valuable model for other agencies who are beginning to cope with this difficult and rapidly growing issue throughout the state and the nation, who need to ask not just “How can we help support caregiver families?” but also “How can we help support caregiver families more effectively?”

Background.

Since 1984, Kinship Center has helped create and support families for thousands of children who could no longer remain safely with their birth parents, by providing adoption, foster and relative care services to the children and families of California.  Over the years the agency has identified a variety of specific needs to support permanent families for children, and has created programs to meet those needs. Today, the agency offers education, counseling and other post-placement support services to nurture success in children and families.

For its first 12 years, Kinship’s services were concentrated on the Central Coast of California, in Monterey and San Benito Counties. Then, in response to a documented need for adoption-related services to children in Orange County, Kinship opened an office there in 1996. Greater expansion followed with the addition of child development and mental health clinics in Orange County; and additional offices in Pasadena and Redlands increased services in Southern California. In 2001, Kinship Center added specialized post-adoption services in Santa Clara County Kinship Center now provides services from offices in Salinas, San Jose, Santa Ana, Pasadena and Redlands. In 2002 Family Ties, which was already providing relative caregiver support services in Monterey County, joined the Kinship Center family of services.

The incorporation of Family Ties into the growing array of Kinship Center services has proved significant both because of the rapid expansion of caregiver families throughout the state and the nation, and because of Kinship Center’s unique status among organizations that serve children who can no longer remain safely with their birth parents The benefits of Kinship Center’s innovative programs extend far beyond the children and families who receive direct services. The agency has taken a leadership role in the child welfare community; it has come to be recognized as a model of innovative excellence; and many of its programs have become models throughout the country. This groundbreaking influence has resulted in systemic changes that are dramatically improving the outcomes for children who cannot safely remain with their birth families. The effective and innovative elements of the Family Ties program have thus become far more accessible to other agencies who are beginning to respond to the rapidly growing need to support relative caregiving.

Charles Chambers, Family Ties Program Director, began his career in social and human services over 20 years ago, working for Catholic Charities in Santa Clara. He has been with Family Ties since 2002. “There are no typical caregivers,” Chambers says. To illustrate, he cites two examples of recent Family Ties’ clientele: an 18 year old girl caring for her three siblings, as well as her own infant child, and an 84 year old woman caring for her nine great-grandchildren.

There may not be a “typical” caregiver, but there clearly is an obvious trend: 550 of Monterey County children have been placed with their grandmothers due to a parent’s illness, drug addiction, imprisonment, or death, resulting in that parent’s perpetual absence. Many of these care-giving grandmothers are single women with personal medical needs and severely limited incomes. Over the past two years, some 753 children in Monterey County living with grandparents have received services from Family Ties.

“Children have been raised by relatives in place of birth parents since the beginning of time,” Chambers says. “There are about 6.5 million children nationwide being raised by relatives.”

Family Ties’ clients are placed into two categories: the primary clients are the relative caregivers and the secondary clients are the children. Clients are referred by a variety of sources including: social services, police departments, school districts, and/or other state programs. The only criterion that must be met is that the child must be living with a non-birth parent caregiver. The definition of a non-birth parent covers a wide array ranging from neighbors to uncle, to brothers and sisters. Family Ties sponsor recreational events and entertainment for families to participate in together for little or no cost. 830 children have attended camps and recreational programs. Through community donations children receive holiday gifts and their families receive holiday meals during the Christmas season.

Every caregiver and child is assigned a case manager to coordinate the particular services that would be most beneficial to each specific case. Family Ties also provides legal services to establish permanency for children living with relative caregivers. Family Ties services include support groups that focus on emotional support, self-esteem building, and peer support, as well as one-on-one counseling offered to the caregiver adults, families, children, and adolescents. Many children enter the foster care system even though they may have capable relatives able to care for them. It’s impossible for many to accommodate the financial, physical, and emotional needs of a child; even more impossible is a child’s ability to feel permanency in the foster care system. Family Ties offers an alternative to the foster care system by helping relative caregivers meet needs that otherwise may be inaccessible to them.

Community Partnerships

Affiliated with the Kinship Center in Salinas since 2002, Family Ties has more recently collaborated with the Monterey County Department of Social Services. The Kinship Support Services Funds (KSSF), a state allocation of 1.5 million dollars reserved for any California county that had at least 40 percent of its foster children already living with a relative, began in 1998. That year, 22 programs began within 12 counties that met the state’s 40 percent criteria. Family Ties is one of those 22 programs.

Through partnerships with local organizations, the Family Ties staff makes referrals for their clients for medical, mental and educational services. The Kinship Center now offers its own, newly built mental health services facility; and, if necessary, Family Ties staff also can refer clients to the Behavioral Health Center in Monterey. Other Family Ties’ community partnerships include a parenting class taught at Hartnell College and the Alliance on Aging. California Rural Legal Assistance has assisted 122 families in obtaining legal guardianship or adoptions through the organization. The Monterey County Food Bank and the Clothes Closet are currently used by over 300 family clients of Family Ties. Chambers foresees future partnerships that might include the Volunteer Center of Monterey County, and more parent education classes through collaboration with the Monterey School District.

Chambers stresses the importance of “community partnerships.” Since the state assistance program began, there has been no increase to that initial 1.5 million dollar allocated amount. With the population growing exponentially and the need for community services expanding, 1.5 million dollars is hardly enough to meet the needs of Family Ties’ relative caregiver clients. An increase to five million dollars is currently being considered by the state legislative body, but funding has ceased to be allocated for any counties who have met that 40 percent mark after the initial 1998 establishment of the KSSF. Despite its severely limited funding, Family Ties has not only provided an incredible amount of outreach over the past year, they has also grown by 50 percent.

(Using Family Ties and the Kinship Center as a model, in 2004 Senators Hillary Clinton and Olympia Snowe introduced the Kinship Caregiver Support Act (S. 2706) as a way to address the needs of the millions of kinship caregivers nationwide who are caring for children whose parents are unable to do so, but Congress has so far taken no action.)

Key Staff

One key to the growing success of Family Ties, and to its value as a statewide and national model, is its small but carefully selected staff. Chambers’ savvy leadership is complemented by the utilization of office and outreach workers who have “been there, done that” themselves. Patricia Ramirez is a good example. Two years ago, Ramirez was hired as an administrative assistant at Family Ties; she also, almost simultaneously, became the new caregiver for her two-year-old nephew, Alex. Ramirez, already a mother of three, says she received a phone call in the middle of the night informing her that her little sister’s four children were being removed due to an abusive boyfriend creating a “neglectful home environment.”

“After being referred to Family Ties I came in to do intake; and the woman talking to me continuously had to excuse herself to answer phones. Apparently, a receptionist had just quit; so I ended up getting a job as the receptionist,” Ramirez says.

Ramirez takes phone calls regarding legal guardianship, does data entry, and she’s the one who answers the phone when a potential caregiver first contacts Family Ties. “When a caregiver calls in the middle of the night, they’re scared about all the responsibility they’re about to take on so suddenly. Being a caregiver, I can relate, and they see that as a good thing. I help them go from worry to ease; I mean I’m the first voice they hear and I’m a relative caregiver,” Ramirez says of her vital double role. Family Ties employs two other women who are also caregivers.

Ramirez calls Family Ties a “blessing.” “It’s unique because they help you get counseling, guardianship, and provide support.”  Her other sister, who lives in Salinas and is also a caregiver, took two of the removed children and has raised them as her own along with her other four children. Over the past two years Ramirez’s sister, with Family Ties’ guidance, has received legal custody as well as social security referrals for the children, both of whom struggle with ADHD. Ramirez describes the Thursday Pot Luck Dinners as her favorite activity sponsored by Family Ties. All the grandmothers and other caretakers get together for dinner and to give each other support while the children play games. In November of 2005, the caregivers of Family Ties even raised money for everyone and their children to take a trip to Disneyland.

Foundation Support

As a local foundation with relatively limited resources, the Central Coast Children’s Foundation (CCCF) seeks opportunities to support activities where the need is great, the impact is clear, and the solutions may provide valuable examples to others dealing with similar problems or issues. Lacking the support of the federal government and in the absence of increased state aid, Family Ties and similar kinship programs must seek both community partnerships and private support. Harvey Pressman, president of the Monterey County based philanthropic organization, views Family Ties as a program that is using “cutting edge” methods and “new approaches” to help put a dent in a widespread problem that is only likely to grow in scope and significance. Before investing in a community organization, the CCCF board asks, “How could we make the most impact?” at a local, state and national level. Pressman foresees the idea of kinship care spreading rapidly, and believes that the value of a model that squeezes as much impact as possible out of every scarce dollar available is likely to grow exponentially. CCCF has even taken one step further, identified the unique composition of Family Ties staff as especially worthy of reinforcing, and targeted its support to their continuing education and skill development. After evaluating the various activities of Family Ties, Pressman and the CCCF board chose an area that they believed to be an especially good investment. (Pressman believes that philanthropists should invest strategically and involve themselves beyond just being check writers.)

The CCCF has supported Family Ties through supporting the development of their employee training programs. A DVD library for staff training and the “encouragement of staff effectiveness,” is one of the recent donations the CCCF has made. Training a staff already well suited in many areas has the potential to promote even greater effectiveness and impact on the part of the staff.

“The CCCF is commendable in that it is unique to the community; they address and recognize needs in great and original ways,” Chambers says of Family Ties’ recent collaboration with CCCF. “It takes a lot more (for philanthropists) to work proactively and strategically,” Pressman says.   “Family Ties is at the forefront for kids who can’t live with their birth parents.”

“We (CCCF) believe Family Ties serves as a good model. All we (CCCF) are able to do is to provide a relatively small amount of help, but we like to make targeted investments. W e especially like the fact that so many of the Family Ties staff have had their own hard-knocks training through personal life experiences,” Pressman says. “We realize that Charles’ staff is crucial to providing the relative caregivers and children with the support needed for stability,” says Pressman. Patricia Ramirez agrees with Pressman: “We (staff) could all benefit and learn from more staff training.”

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