Without due consideration for alumni feedback, politicians, judges, social workers and other policymakers have deemed kinship care a “best practice.”
But what if this seemingly logical assumption is not a panacea at all, but, rather, another danger zone; further evidence of the necessity of listening to what alumni know from personal experience?
In our 2009 book, Growing Up in the Care of Strangers, three child welfare practitioners who grew up in the custody of kin shared their experiences with us.
Danita Echols, MSW
“Living with my grandmother returned [me] to the dramatic and traumatic existence I had known years before when we lived in her basement. She could be just as violent with us as my mother was. I could no longer protect my siblings from beatings. My grandmother used the same weapons as my mother did when it came to administering physical punishment. For example, one time when my brother did not move fast enough for her, my grandmother hit him over the head with a frozen 10-pound tube of hamburger, knocking him down. The next day, I burst into tears during class and then reported the incident to my teacher. The court moved me out of the house, but left my sister and brothers with my grandmother. I spent the next several years trying to make it up to my siblings for leaving them, so deep was my guilt.”
Claudette Braxton, LCSW
“Kinship care may work for some foster children, but living with my five-year-older, newly married sister proved difficult for me. I interrupted their marriage at its beginning, and Paulette’s husband let me know it. All communications to me from my brother-in-law came through my sister. I felt so bad that she had to listen to him complain about me. To remedy this, I stayed away as often as I could. I had a best friend who lived down the street. Her house became my second home, where I escaped to lessen the strain between Paulette and her husband. I felt more comfortable there.”
Claudette goes on to describe the kinship care experiences of her siblings, Cathy and Phillip:
“While Paulette and her husband debated how I should live elsewhere, Cathy and Phillip struggled to fit in with the Detroit side of the family. Cathy describes her time in kinship care as a ‘hard knock life.’ She remembers one of he family’s ‘real’ daughters slapping her, and her catching blame for everything that went wrong in their home. Se felt like an outsider, not a family member, and that no one cared about her or Phillip.”
Rosalind Folman, Ph.D.
Orphanages are often called “the Home” by residents, which is where Dr. Folman lived before her maternal grandmother took her in:
“When I left the Home, the spark of life that ignited there died, as did the little girl who flirted with a sense of belonging … because the differences between my life at the Home and living in kinship care were so stark that memories of the Home probably would have made an already bad situation worse.”
“While I lived primarily in my maternal grandmother’s home, it was a shared guardianship with her six children. My grandmother hoped her children would take me in and raise me as their own, but no one wanted me. In fact, they did everything they could to communicate that I was worthless, unloved, unwanted and definitely not part of their family. I still remember these hurtful words, ‘Even your own parents don’t want you, so you should be thankful that you have a roof over your head and aren’t sleeping on the street.’”
Three seasoned child welfare specialists exposed their painful kinship care experiences so that other foster kids might not have to suffer likewise for want of the truth.
When will policymakers listen to the voices of alumni?
Dr. Waln Brown is CEO of the William Gladden Foundation, and Dr. John Seita is Assistant Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. Their latest e-book, A Foster Care Manifesto, is a call to action for the 12 million foster care alumni in America.
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