Listen to Episode 15 of the Vigilant Voices™ podcast, YOU Can Be Family.

Jeannine Panzera: Hello, listeners! Thanks for joining us for the Vigilant Voices™ podcast.

Kristin Blalock: We’re so happy to have you. This podcast is an extension of our work at CASA, which again stands for Court Appointed Special Advocates. And we’re appointed to serve children…

J: these are children who’ve experienced abuse and or neglect. And so we formed this podcast to help all of us know more about the challenges facing children and families in order to ensure that one day no children face abuse, neglect or trauma..

K: And many children that we work with have been removed from their home because, sadly, it just wasn’t safe for them to remain there with their family of origin..

J: And, of course, we absolutely hate to see that for so many reasons.

K: Yeah. What we love to see is when children aren’t placed with strangers at that point, when they’re removed from their home, but instead with relatives or people that they already know, according to a statistic from Generations Unlimited, more than 30% of children in foster care are actually living with family.

J: You know, these might be formal or informal placements, but, you know, the formal arrangements are completely managed by the Department of Social Services, just like the traditional foster care placements that we’ve talked about before. But the informal ones mean that a child is living with someone else without necessarily a court enforced transfer of custody.

K: And in today’s CASA case story, a baby who will call Liana and her older sibling, Lee, had to leave their home due to violence and resulting criminal charges brought against their parent. And so the Department of Social Services took custody of them through an emergency removal and immediately began looking for a foster care placement. But they started by prioritizing, finding a potential family member who could be a caregiver.

J: Which makes good sense. And we can hopefully all understand why they started by looking for family members right away, because if at all possible, social services. At CASA, we are all wanting to maintain those family connections definitely, and provide a stable and hopefully more familiar environment during a child’s time in foster care away from their family, things like that.

K: I mean, it’s traumatic enough to be removed from your home.

J: Right.

K: And so moving in with someone you already know can make for a much smoother transition. And hopefully their new caregivers are already familiar with the child’s background, their needs, their preferences, and hopefully that type of stability will lessen the child’s anxiety.

J: And it also creates an environment where children, you know, can then maintain connections to their heritage, language, culture, traditions. And so that kind of cultural continuity really helps children with their sense of self and belonging..

K: And let’s pause here to point out that kinship caregivers can be relatives, you know, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, but it can also include close family friends..

J: And in our world, that’s what we call fictive kin.

K: Right. We’ve seen friends, coaches, godparents. Those types of relationships can be closer than even a family member. And so this concept of kinship care really extends beyond biological ties.

J: You know, and whether a child is placed with biological family or the fictive kin, as we’ve just talked about, you know, either way, it sends a powerful message that these can are committed to ensuring that child’s well-being. It often creates opportunities for the adults to hopefully come together to address some of these underlying issues and then again work together to heal some past wounds within the family relationships, which can sometimes be complex.

K: And in that way, kinship care can sometimes become a foundation for reconciliation within what might have been a broken family..

J: And I mean, these caregivers can also be a bridge for that child welfare system.,

K: So true. I know we’ve seen traditional foster care placement placements occasionally struggle because maintaining harmony among everyone involved is really tough.

J: And they’re often a lot of people involved in these cases. So we have the child, biological parents, foster caregivers, all of the service providers. I mean, there’s just so many people involved in these types of cases..

K: And placing children with kin can hopefully prevent, you know, some added tension, misunderstandings, and challenges. We’ve sometimes even seen it allow for easier visitation with parents who are still in the picture on a limited basis.

J: And I think the idea is that overall, it just lays groundwork for what we call reunification if that’s a possibility or a goal in that particular case.

K: Yeah, you know, as we’re talking about this, I feel like we’re painting a picture of kinship care being this wonderful solution, which it can definitely be because the child benefits. But…

J: it can also be pretty messy though, because of what’s going on and the family dynamics.

K: Yeah, it’s definitely taxing for family and friends who take on caring for this child.

J: And I mean, it’s taxing, you know, because they’re logistically now caring for another child, maybe potentially completely unexpectedly. And then you add that with the emotional aspect of it. It’s a lot..

K: When our advocates encounter arrangements like this, they often try to find out more about what would be helpful for the kinship care provider, what would make this arrangement more comfortable and

J: more likely to be successful.

K: Right.

J; And so because we are always looking for these type of situations to work in the long term and for the long term, you know, we don’t want children to bounce around to different homes. We know they need stability.

K: No doubt they do. So let’s run through some of the things that are advocates have noted that these caregivers often need or request because maybe listener you can keep an eye out for families like these and offer support in some way.

J: Sounds great. So when kinship care arrangements are made formally, as we mentioned with the Department of Social Services and their involvement, you know, there is financial support that is offered. So it’s helpful, sure, but informal placements don’t necessarily have this. And so as we know, you know, caring for children is expensive. And so there are always that added financial strain, you know, in any of these arrangements..

K: And sometimes, you know, it’s not even the dollars necessarily, it’s having the time, energy, etc. to get whatever’s needed, you know. So it might be helpful for us as supportive community members to maybe drop off gift cards, meals, maybe bring them hand-me-downs or school supplies. You know, this caregiver may not be well-stocked with things appropriate for the age of whatever child they took in.

J: And, of course. You know, sometimes they’re going to say, oh, no, I don’t want to accept your gifts. You know, it’s too much. And I think in that case, I understand. But then you could drop something off totally anonymously.,

K: They can’t turn down an anonymous gift!

J: Then, you know, we’ve talked about that taxing aspect. And so another common need is frankly for breaks or what we call kind of respite. Which also then translate to opportunities for self care..

K: And you know, for these families, let’s say that it’s not usually as simple as offering to babysit.,

J: That’s right. And I mean, I think there can be a different variety of reasons, but it’s often difficult to leave some of these kids who are really vulnerable, who need that extra support and love and oversight and sometimes other people coming in isn’t necessarily the best solution.

K: Right. But there can be other ways besides child care to give a break? Totally random, funny story. But when I was at the airport with my children looking exhausted, this lovely man brought me a box of chocolates and he just said, “One day you might need these, put them in your laundry room.” And I did. And there was a day when I was locked in my laundry room eating those chocolates!

J: Who doesn’t like chocolate, right? But I love that. I mean, that man gave you a break in a really creative way that you didn’t expect, right?

K: Yes.

J: I love that. Good, good example. But, you know, another creative way to give breaks might be to help make connections, you know, with emotional support groups like counseling or parenting groups, you know, that you can just suggest to the caregiver..

K: Or you can help coordinate carpools for the family. Just one less thing for them to worry about or establish on their own can make such a big difference.

J: And something else that we really see that our advocates tell us that the families often need is that emotional support. I mean, just the encouraging words they need to know that people are thinking about them or praying for them, you know, just need to be uplifted from time to time..

K: And they need that emotional support within boundaries that are comfortable for them because we have to recognize they can’t always or don’t want to share the ins and outs of what’s going on with that child or their family. You know, that’s personal, right? So they need your support, but they don’t want to feel pressured to share necessarily.

J: Exactly. And they don’t want to feel judged. You know, these behaviors are coming out with the kids…

K: They don’t want to have to explain over and over again why they’re waiting or what’s happening with the court or the foster care system. They kind of just need a space to vent and be listened to if needed.

J: Listening skills are always good, you know, and maybe part of that is then us recognizing and appreciating those, you know, family members. Thank you for being a safe place for this child. Is there anything I can do to help? You know, I mean, I think comments like that never hurt for anyone.

K: Definitely. Okay. So I’ve been dying to finish up today’s CASA case story because there are really good things in the future for Liana and Leigh. Their biological mom could not care for them, but they did have other people in their lives who loved them so much and really wanted to raise them and were committed to raising them.

J: Love that and we say it all the time, but every child wants and needs to be wanted..

K: Yes. And these children are! They actually had different biological fathers. So their paternal line of relatives was different and they had different adults in their lives. So while they didn’t stay together, they both now have a loving home that fits their need for connection. Baby Liana’s paternal great aunt now has custody of her. Really neat side note this woman actually stumbled upon a letter from the Department of Social Services that wasn’t even intended for her and called them to say, “I will raise Liana.”

J: That’s amazing. I mean, you know, she stumbled on the knowledge that this little girl needed a home. I mean, it’s just wonderful.

K: Wait. There was even more because Leigh, the other sibling, had a father figure in her life who fought for her. He wasn’t related. He was a fictive father. But he did everything required of him and more to get custody of her. And I heard from the Advocate that he just bawled the day the judge granted him custody.

J: I mean, what a great story and how special for these children. And again, no one obviously is going to replace their mom. But at least in this moment, while she is unable to care for them, I mean, what a wonderful thing that they had these kin to step in to care for them..

K: Yeah. So listener that makes me want to ask you, who are your kin? Maybe take a minute to think outside of the box…

J: outside of just what you would call that family tree line, Right?

K: Right. Biological or fictive kin. Who is included in your definition of family? Let these people know. Tell your children who these people are. Be sure there’s a network of adults in your family’s life who would step up for you if and when life throws you a curve ball.

J: Because let’s be real. You know it will.