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Kith & Kin January 2021 | Issue: Kinship care


Dear Reader, Over several years, traditional parenting trends have shifted. Due to high divorce rates, increased drug use, legalization of same-sex marriage, families today consist of kinship care, single parenthood, and interracial parenting. And that is why we created the platform of Kith & Kin; in hopes to nurture and foster a community among non-traditional parents in southeast Ohio. Each quarterly issue will uphold the stories from an alternative family arrangement, alongside resources and interviews with experts. Thus, for our inaugural issue we chose to provide voice to the 7.9 million families across the United States who are involved in kinship care. Kinship or relative care-giving refers to a form of care provided to children across various cultures by their relative or close family friends, when the biological parents are unable to provide care.

I came across this form of care giving nearly a year back when I discovered a beautiful mother-son relationship unfold between a 63-year-old grandmother raising her grandson. And the more time I spent around them, the more I fell in love. Gradually, I started to become aware of their joys and struggles. And over the course of time they started to represent the large population of kinship caregivers and what it takes these caregivers to raise the next generation. Through research, striking imagery and heartwarming storytelling, we have tried to pay homage to the stories of the many grand-families in Ohio and the nation. Because after all, we strive to bring non-traditional families together in support and celebration of each other. Editor-in-Chief, Srijita Chattopadhyay


Kith & Kin January 2021 Issue One: Kinship Care

Publisher Terry Eiler

Editor-in-Chief Srijita Chattopadhyay

Picture Editors Christiana Botic Terry Eiler Marie D. De JesĂşs Lauren Santucci

Copy Editors Christiana Botic Terry Eiler Gaelen Morse

Design Editors Terry Elier Julie Elman

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We are Family A portrait series introducing the faces and the stories of kinship families across the state of Ohio

Oh, AJ! An intimate look into the relationship of a grandmother raising a grandchild

In Conversation With A kinship care researcher breaks it down as she talks about the past, present and future

Editorial board Christiana Botic Terry Eiler Katharine Falkenberg Eric Flynn Brian Koscho Micheal Rubenstein Lauren Santucci Carlin Stiehl

Cover: Diane and AJ share a moment at their back porch. By Srijita Chattopadhyay Left: After emptying out styrofoam peanuts from a torn stuffed toy on his trampoline, AJ runs around in his "snow." By Srijita Chattopadhyay

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From left to right, Lenora Lumpkin, 48, with her grandsons, Donzelle (DJ) Crosby, 9, and Anthony Geiger, 6. Kith & Kin | Jan. 2021


PORTRAIT SERIES

WE ARE FAMILY Kinship care is a huge part of our society and has been for several years; this portrait series celebrates the life and the stories of various kinship families across Ohio Story and Photos by Srijita Chattopadhyay

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t is a chilly, overcast, October afternoon in Columbus; cutting through the gloom is the sound of rustling foliage and the cacophony of children at play from the backyard of Lenora Lumpkin’s suburban home. Lenora takes a moment from packing a leaf bag and looks over at her two grandkids, DJ and Anthony, as they play. “Although, I pray and I cry every night taking care of them,” she said. “I love to see the smiles on their faces, and that’s what keeps me going.” Lenora was perfectly content with her life; she had a nice apartment and a job she enjoyed. But one day she woke up and God said to her, “move.” Based on those instincts she moved out of her apartment and purchased a house. And after a few months, she received a call from her mother informing her that her two young grandsons were homeless. Mental illness runs in Lenora’s family. While she suffers from bouts of severe depression and anxiety, her three children face more serious diagnoses. But, DJ and Anthony’s mother refuses to get help. A few years back, after losing her residence at a low-income housing facility, DJ, Anthony, and their mother found themselves living on the streets of Columbus. For a year or so, Lenora hadn’t the faintest idea that her grandkids were homeless. So when she received the news, in an instant, she took them in. In August of 2018, Lenora became a kinship caregiver to DJ and Anthony. She knew she could not let her grandchildren suffer, especially when she is capable of giving them a better life. When they arrived, they had nothing. Lenora reorganized her house, purchased new beds, clothes, shoes, and food for the kids, and began raising them. “Ima be honest this is not what I wanted to do at 48-years-old,” she said. “But the woman that I am — I am not gonna let them fail.”

After the kids began living with Lenora, she fell into a deep depression. For over 10 years, she had been by herself, and now suddenly she had to figure out how to take care of two hyper children, work a full-time job, and support them emotionally, physically, and financially. Moreover she made too much money to get federal assistance; even though the only support she needed was childcare and food stamps. But, somehow she managed, and as she was starting to embrace this new chapter in her life; then she lost her job. The position she held for 15 years at the Franklin County Juvenile Detention Center changed her hours, making it difficult for Lenora to raise two children. After multiple requests to have them accommodate her situation, they chose to let her go. Today, she continues to look for a job that will allow her to get back on her feet, but she doesn’t let that affect the upbringing of her grandchildren. They are still her priority. It was only a few weeks back when the school called her to let her know that she was doing a wonderful job raising DJ and Anthony, and she remembers how emotional that call made her feel. “I don’t know no other way but to be strong,” Lenora said. “Even when I’m weak, I know no other way but to be strong.” For the past two years, life has been a whirlwind of emotions, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. As she continues to navigate through hardships with a smile on her face, Lenora makes sure she gives her grandkids the life they deserve. She now understands and has more respect for other, older kinship caregivers raising young children. In the future, Lenora hopes to take her experiences and be a voice and fight for the millions of kinship caregivers in the nation in hopes to bring kinship families more and better resources.

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From left to right, Christy Ross, 58 Doris Webber, 51 with their four grandchildren, Carsun Brown, 9, Ashtyn Webber,5, and the twins Nevaeh and Bently Davis, 7

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here’s nothing like looking at life through a kid’s eyes,” Christy said. “It gives you your joy back, keeps you young, and for us, they give us a purpose.” Doris and Christy embarked on a partnership nearly a decade ago. They had their debts paid off and were living a humble life at their trailer home. A few years later, they found themselves facing a new partnership together: kinship caregivers for Doris's son. At age 16, Doris’s son spiraled down into the drug epidemic. At the time, Doris worked as a Chemical Dependency Counselor, and upon finding out about her son, she had to walk away from the job. “Being a dependency counselor, you wouldn’t think that your own child would be a user. He was a good kid, played sports, was an honor student, and then it was gone,” she said. “I don’t know how it happened, and looking back on it, I didn’t want to see it.” Doris’s son left home at age 18 and came back, homeless, scared, and elbow-deep in addiction. Doris and Christy let him move in with them but it was a rough situation, and after a few months, he moved into a homeless shelter. At the shelter, he met the mother of Doris grandchild, Ashtyn. Weeks turned into months and months into years. Ashtyn, his half siblings and his parents

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bounced around. And ultimately, after their parents separated, he was placed into Doris and Christy's care in 2015. While Doris’s son has found sobriety and is working toward emotional and financial stability, Doris says the mother has never come back for Ashtyn or his three older half-siblings. “We could have only taken Ashtyn,” Christy said. “But we fell in love with the others. Moreover, they are Ashtyn’s family, and it’s not a separable thing in our eyes.” Three years after Doris and Christy became kinship caregivers, they moved out of their trailer home and into a bigger house. They wanted the kids to grow up in the country, have a large backyard where they can play, and live in a place they are proud of, “they deserve it,” Doris said. Around this same time Doris and Christy decided to become licensed foster parents and bring more children into their loving care. Today, Doris and Christy raise their four grandchildren and three foster kids at their country home nestled among the Appalachian beauty of Piketon. Some days, the couple go to bed wondering if they are doing it right. But no matter what, they feel lucky to be able to care for all the children.


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From left to right, Susan Roberts, 45, Reginald Steve Pounds, 53, with Steve’s grandson, Reginald Shawn Pounds,11, and Susan’s biological children, Tré, 17 and Olivia Barron, 13

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ne evening in 2017, in their hometown in Louisiana, Steve’s daughter was walking back home when a drunk driver ran her over. “It messed up her legs,” Steve said. “And soon after, she got hooked on painkillers.” When the accident took place, Steve’s grandson, Reginald (or Reggie), was 8-yearsold. Unable to be cared for by his mother, Reggie moved in with his father and his paternal grandmother. Shortly after, care and affection was replaced by alleged abuse and neglect. Back in Louisiana, the alleged abuse and neglect continued. “The grandmother would lock him up in the closet, beat him, and not feed him,” Steve said. “So when he would go to school, the kids would give him some of their food.” Until one day, the Department of Family and Child Services removed Reggie from his father’s house and put him into his aunt’s care, Steve’s sister. While Steve’s sister did all she could to take care of her nephew as well as her three children, she eventually asked Steve to raise Reggie because of her deteriorating health. Several years before Reggie was born, Steve moved away from Louisiana for better job pros-

pects. After meeting his partner, Susan, he moved to southeast Ohio to be with her and her children, Tré and Olivia Last September, Steve traveled back to his hometown to get custody and officially become Reggie’s permanent kinship caregiver. The decision to take him in was easy and one Steve didn’t hesitate to make. “He is family,” Steve said. His partner Susan extended her unconditional support. “I knew it was going to be tough; I had a little bit of anxiety,” she said. “Saying ‘no,’ never crossed my mind. That, to me, wasn’t an option.” When Reggie moved into the house with Steve, Susan, and Susan’s children, he was skeptical of physical affection, Susan said. But as months passed, he opened up and became more comfortable. Today, Steve and Susan raise Reggie with the kind of love and respect that every child deserves. And since Steve has been a single parent raising both his daughters, his only challenge with Reggie has been learning how to raise a boy, he said.

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From left to right, Beverly and Robbie Stringer, 59, with their only grandchild, Lanna Stringer, 6

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t’s tough as a parent because you’re used to taking care of things for your kids and fixing them,” Beverly said. “But you get to the point with addiction when fixing them becomes enabling, and you have got to stop it.” In November 2014, Beverly and Robbie’s daughter relapsed while 27 weeks pregnant. The relapse threw her into premature labor and the hospital was compelled to perform an emergency c-section. The baby was life-flighted to Columbus, where the NICU temporarily housed her. While Beverly and Robbie waited with their daughter to be released from the local hospital, the Department of Family and Child Services arrived. According to Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy devoted to helping build communities for children, states that in Scioto County alone, there are over 300 children in foster care and not enough foster homes. “I don’t want her in a foster home,” Beverly said. “I want her, this is our grandchild.” Beverly and Robbie immediately reached out to their lawyer and got their paperwork organized in order to obtain legal custody of their only grandchild, Lanna. When the hospital released Lanna, she came home to her grandparents and her mother moved in with them as well. Everything was fine until

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Beverly began to suspect her daughter was using again. In a subsequent conversation with their daughter, Beverly and Robbie offered her two choices — she could either check herself into the rehab and get clean or move out. “We could not take any chance whatsoever of losing her [Lanna],” Beverly said. Their daughter decided to move out. For Beverly and Robbie, becoming kinship caregivers to Lanna didn’t require much thought. Unlike other grandparents who prefer to spoil their grandchildren and send them back home, Beverly and Robbie enjoy spending every minute with their granddaughter and watching her grow up. “We would trade it for nothing,” Robbie said. While Beverly and her husband sometimes feel that they might not have the energy they once had while raising their two kids, it doesn’t stop them from making the best of the situation. Robbie lets Lanna ride with him on his mower and plays with her on the trampoline, while Beverly enjoys it when Lanna helps her cook. In one week, Lanna will turn six, the same number of years Beverly and Robbie have had her. They hope that as Lanna grows older, their daughter builds a stronger relationship with Lanna. At the same time, “our house would be awfully quiet and boring without her,” Robbie said. “It would be hard for us to let go.” ■


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AJ gathers a batch of his summer tomato harvest from the backyard. Kith & Kin | Jan. 2021


FEATURE

OH, AJ! An intimate look into the life of a grandmother raising her grandson nestled in southeast Appalachia Story and Photos by Srijita Chattopadhyay

Chapter One: Everything changed When AJ was only a year old, his mother signed away her parental rights to Tony due to her sustained substance use. She hasn’t been a part of AJ’s life since; he was raised by Tony and Diane. They had their whole life put together, Tony had a good income from his semi-truck transportation business. He had invested in some plots in Florida where he planned to eventually move with AJ. While Diane was content with relaxing and spoiling

From the time he was 16 or 17, all he ever talked about was having a son. And the hardest thing for me to get used to the fact that he didn’t get to raise him.

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moke spirals toward the kitchen ceiling as 64-year-old Diane Roberts lights another cigarette, “he is not my grandson, he is my son,” she said, while her 7-yearold grandson, AJ, bickers over a video game. Diane’s world has always revolved around family — her parents, her three children — Tony, Bobbie, Sam, and later, her grandchildren. When she retired 11-yearsago, she sought to spend the rest of her days with family, being a grandmother, playing cards, traveling outside of Millfield, possibly getting a post-retirement job, and maybe even resting. In a heartbeat, all of that changed on Sunday, March 20, 2016. As the winter began to give into spring, while Diane and AJ slept soundly tucked away in the other room of their three bedroom home. Her eldest child, Tony, died of an overdose of prescription painkillers. Overnight, Diane went from being AJ’s grandmother to his kinship care provider — or as he puts it, “mom.” “I made a promise to Tony, if anything ever happened to him I would take care of AJ,” Diane said. “And, what kind of life would that child have had if I had not took him.”

— Diane Roberts

her brand-new grandson. But on an unfateful day, Tony met with a near-fatal semitruck accident at work, injuring both of his knees. He was prescribed painkillers to ease the anguish, and soon after, began spiraling down into dependency. Life had just started to feel normal for the Roberts family when Tony was met with another accident, only this time it was fatal — his motorcycle accident left him with an amputated leg. Preceding the accident, he went down farther into the rabbit hole of pain, pain-killers, and depression for not being able to care for his son. Not long after, he died. “From the time he was 16 or 17, all he ever talked about was having a son,” Diane said. “And the hardest thing for me to get used to is the fact that he didn’t get to raise him.”

Chapter Two: The right fit After Tony’s passing, Diane could not think or trust anyone else to take care of AJ. He was Tony’s whole world and he was the only tangible memory of Tony she could hold on to. So without much contemplation, she decided that she would raise AJ by giving him the life that Tony wanted him to have. Within days of Tony’s passing, with support from her daughter, Bobbie, and their lawyer, Diane started the process to legally adopt AJ. Following a series of house studies, lawyer visits, a mountain of paperwork, and two court dates later, it was official. She felt like a weight had lifted, when on September 20, 2016, Diane received AJ’s brand new birth certificate with her name as his mother. Diane's family including her mother, brother, sister-in-law and her eldest daughter gathered at the court to celebrate AJ’s adoption away from the drugs that he would be exposed 11/12


to if he was sent home to be raised by his biological mother. “When the adoption formalities were over and the Judge was talking to us he said, “I really like when the whole family shows up for these adoptions because that shows me that they really care,” Diane said. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a private philanthropy devoted to helping build communities for children, states that over 7.9 million children in the United States are currently in kinship care. As per the foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, there were 117,000 children living in kinship care in Ohio alone between the years of 2018-2020.

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However, kinship care-giving is not a modern phenomenon; this form of care-giving has existed since the American Colonial era. Kinship care-giving, especially informal care, is a longstanding tradition in African-American families and is tied to the sense of interconnectedness and fierce cultural attachments. As summarized in the book, The Strength of Black Families, by American sociologist and author Dr. Robert B. Hill, one of the major strengths of African-American families is their strong kinship bonds. He also points out that families of color are more likely to absorb younger related family members than their

white counterparts. Furthermore, Dr. Hill states that Black families headed by women tend to absorb an even larger percentage of children. And since formal adoption agencies have historically ignored Black children, informal kinship adoption has been one way that these families have solved that problem. Nevertheless, such a type of care-giving can also be observed in other close-knit cultures like Hispanic, Asian, and Appalachian communities. Although this form of family structure has existed for centuries, it only came to the national forefront during the dawn of the heroin, crack cocaine, and methamphetamine epidemic in the late 1980s and early


1990s. Barbara Turpin, a retired Ohio Department of Job and Family Services program developer and currently works with the Ohio Grandparent Kinship coalition, the statewide advocacy organization for kinship caregivers, said that the drug crisis was the impetus for the government to look at alternative forms of care-giving that can be provided to children who were entering the Child Welfare System in giant waves. And kinship caregivers were the reasonable next step to foster homes. “Had they been taking all the kids that were coming into their care,” Turpin said. “The system would have collapsed.” Although aspects of the former

crack-cocaine epidemic has slowed, the American society continues to hold onto the kinship model of care-giving as the nation grapples with the present-day opioid epidemic.

Chapter Three: Each others world It is a sunny October morning in Millfield. Diane sits alone at the outdoor picnic table, tired. She didn’t sleep well last night because she kept looking over at AJ’s empty bed. “Without him, I am lost,” she said. “He is my buddy.” Now and then, AJ stays with his aunt Bobbie in Lauralsville, Ohio. Each time

Top: AJ blows out birthday candles for his late father, Tony, on Sept. 1. For the past two years Diane and AJ celebrate Tony's life with some cake and ice cream. Left: Running through the backyard of Diane's house in Millfield, Ohio, is how AJ spends most of his spare moments. His whole life AJ has only known this house to be his home. This is house he came to after her was born and this is the house where Tony died. Right: Diane combs AJ's wet hair after she accidentally put a lot of hair gel before heading out to his school play.

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AJ finds it difficulty to show physical affection towards Diane. Every now and then he settles for a quick hug but never a kiss or an "I love you." But, a moment doesn't go by without him seeking her undivided attention.

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“I know I am not the best parent, but I want to raise him good.” — Diane Roberts

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AJ is gone, Diane doesn’t know how to go about her day without him running around the house and the yard. Since Tony’s passing, it has only been Diane and AJ —he is her sun —her life revolves around him. They sleep in the same room, they are awake together, even if that means 4 a.m., he can’t be alone in a place, like a doctor’s office, for long before he cries out for his mom. When his friends and him play in the backyard, she is right there with them at a distance, sitting in a fold-up chair, smoking a cigarette. “With him not having a dad or a mom, I give him extra attention,” she said. “Because when he gets older and realizes that I am not his mother, he needs to know that grandma really loved him.” Which is why whatever AJ wants, he gets. Diane believes that he deserves to be spoiled because he has been through a lot for a kid his age. Even on days when she is not feeling her best, she will get up and get AJ what he wants, even if it is a burger from McDonald's seven miles away. However, that doesn’t mean that she neglects to teach him values and corrects him when he is wrong. If anything, Diane said, he gets redressed

more than other kids. To Diane, AJ is not like her other grandchildren; he is different and special needs. He struggles with ADHD along with temper tantrums, anxiety issues, and a speech impediment. Moreover, with his ADHD, he finds it hard to sit still, be calm, and entertain himself like other kids his age. That is why he likes Diane’s undivided attention. And there are times when she gets aggravated because she has to continually focus on him and leave her chores for another time, but she also recognizes and understands his wants and needs. In a recent conversation with AJ’s counselor, Diane was made aware that AJ has separation anxiety. But that separation anxiety slides both ways; Diane is as protective of AJ as he is of her. “Each kid you have is special in a different way. It is not that you love any of them any more or less,” she said. “But, when you lose one, you really get protective of your other kids.” Moreover, Diane is not only protective of AJ because of his special needs, but she also knows that he is mollycoddled and doesn’t want him to get into trouble. She wants to be able to tell any neighborhood


gossiper t hat her done anything wrong.

son

h a s n’ t

Chapter Three: Raising him again According to Generations United, a national organization that improves the lives of children, youth, and older adults through intergenerational programs, policies, and strategies, states that out of the 7.9 million children under kinship care, 2.7 million of those children are being raised by grandparents and 46% of them are of age 60 or older. In addition, nearly 19% live below the poverty line. Distilling the numbers further shows that 48% of these grandparent led households are grandmother-only households. “I can be a grandmother to my other grandkids,” Diane said. “But with AJ I have to be both.” Diane sometimes feels like she was cheated out of being AJ’s grandmother, instead she has to be the disciplinarian. But she wouldn’t have it any other way. For her, being a mom is what the world is all about. Furthermore, she absolutely loves and enjoys being AJ’s mom and finds pure joy in watching him run around the house. Diane has always felt like a mother to

AJ. Ever since he was a little baby she would help Tony take care of him. And when it came to his first words he said “dad,” and called Diane, “mom.” Initially that upset Tony. Because to him AJ has a mother. But during a candid conversation with Tony, Diane explained that the reason it is okay for AJ to call her “mom,” is because his actual mother isn’t in his life. “I know I am not the best parent,” Diane said. “But I want to raise him good.” Over the past four years, raising AJ has been like raising Tony all over again for her. The way he acts to the way he talks and everything in between embodies a younger version of Tony. And not only does he remind Diane uncannily of Tony, but AJ is what keeps him alive for her. She finds sheer happiness in sharing memories of Tony with AJ and enjoys seeing him piece together and create his own image of his father. And sometimes when she watches him play or be himself around the house, she knows that Tony would be nothing but immensely proud of AJ and the young man he is becoming. “My little boy is gone,” Diane said. “But I got a second chance with AJ.”

Left: After several months of social distancing AJ has a play date with one of his neighbor and best friend, Trenton. That weekend they played Pokémon cards, helped Diane clean up the attic, battled characters on Fortnite and wrestled on a slippery trampoline. Right: AJ's ADHD and anxiety issues make him violent, often resulting in frustration leading to physical aggression and temper tantrums like punching holes in drywall to banding his head on the door. "But, that is not his fault." Diane said. "I understand that he is special and I am able to handle him."

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AJ flips off Diane, as she walks away after attempting to put him to bed.

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Chapter Four: Tired, yet strong Country music blares through the boom-box as Diane works at making a table in her stuffy, attic wood-shop. AJ is running up and down the stairs and riling up their dog, Lucky, by tackling her. Diane sits down with a thump, sighs and lights a cigarette. “I am tired and my back hurts,” she said. Being an older caregiver that is raising a fairly young child comes with realistic limitations. Diane finds it difficult to be agile while playing with AJ, her arthritis aches her back, her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes it difficult to

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breathe and some nights she has a hard time falling asleep. And AJ struggles to comprehend that, unlike other parents, his mother is older and tends to get tired more easily. “I can't jump or crawl with him and all those things that he wants me to do,” she said. “And I hate it, because I want to do all that, but if I get on the floor, I cannot get up.” Diane doesn't let her deteriorating health get in the way. She has unparalleled strength and resiliency when it comes to navigating the world to raise AJ. Even when it came to her finances, she felt independent enough to take care of the two of

them. Although, she wishes that AJ was able to have his own health insurance so he could afford a variety of medical benefits. But Diane constantly recounts that she is lucky to have a good family to support her and AJ in ever way possible. “I am really not out here on my own,” she said. “ Sure we have our differences but as a rule we are a close family. I know my family is always going to be there.”

Chapter Five: It's just you and me AJ and Diane live in the perfect world. They have everything they need settled among most of their family who live only a


few feet away like her mother, Shirley, her brothers, Monty and Robin and her youngest daughter Sam. Diane hopes to see AJ grow up play ball or wrestle like his father, as she cheers him on from the bleachers. She hopes that AJ grows up to prove all his teachers wrong. And show them that he isn’t just a handful, by becoming someone big. But most importantly she hopes that he grows up to be a good productive member of the society. While Diane is aware that she might not be around for the long haul—the ball games, dances, first date or his first car. But

for now she finds contentment in knowing that their life, at this very point in time, is nothing short of love, joy, and laughter. “I love that little fellow,” Diane said. “He is my world and I am his.” ■

Top: With schools shifting to virtual lessons during the pandemic, for subjects like, Math, Diane has to help AJ out with his lessons. Given his behavioral issues, AJ gets frustrated with the virtual classes and refuses to sit down and be instructed by the teachers. However, with a change in medication, AJ has been doing much better. Left: Diane gives AJ a hug as he struggles to be put down. Right: After a long battle with AJ to get his school work finished, Diane collapses on her back porch frustrated, tired and exhausted.

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Dr. Ramona Denby-Brison poses for a portrait at Ohio State University Kith & Kin | Jan. 2021


IN CONVERSATION WITH

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r. Ramona Denby-Brinson is a professor and the Associate Dean of Academics Affairs in the College of Social Work at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. She has spent most of her adult life searching for the answer to one question, and that question has become the driving motivator for her career, “Kasserian Ingera?”— a traditional greeting used by the Massai tribe in Kenya, which translates to “how are the children?” While most of her work focuses on children who grew up in the U.S. foster care system, her research extended into the sphere of kinship caregiving after becoming a kinship caregiver herself. Today, she is one of the nation’s leading scholars in the area of kinship care. In the following tête-à-tête, Dr. Denby discusses her passion for serving our society, her team’s research in kinship care, and changes grand-families can hope for.

What makes you passionate about dedicating your life to helping children and their families?

DR. RAMONA DENBY-BRISON BREAKS IT DOWN In conversation with a kinship care researcher and an expert who hopes to make a difference for kin families and caregivers Story and photo by Srijita Chattopadhyay

Children, especially those reared in low-income environments, are among the most vulnerable in U. S. society. These are groups without a voice, and I have made it my entire career to give a voice to those children and help preserve their families. Moreover, my passion is rooted in my experiences growing up as part of a large, working-class family in Las Vegas. In addition to having strong, loving parents, my siblings and I were taught to understand the inherent strength of the connection with our community. And I believe that every child needs to have that understanding. Even if their biological parents cannot provide for them, removing a child from their family does not help and should be the last option. Families help to keep kids connected, healthy, strong, and provide a sense of belongingness. And for that to happen in our society, we must strengthen parents and caregivers and make sure that they are functioning at a level that allows them to be the best caregivers they can be. Beyond being a voice for children, you have spent extensive time and effort researching kinship care; why? Kinship care for me is more than just research; it is personal. For years, I defined my area of research broadly, including child welfare and children’s mental health. But things changed for my family in the mid-90s. After I graduated with my Ph.D., my twin brother and I became kinship caregivers to our great-niece and nephews; due to their mother’s addiction issues, she couldn’t take care of them. Initially my mother stepped in and became a caregiver to the kids, and when she passed, that responsibility was handed to us. That is why I often tell people, “I’m a mom. I have three biological kids, but I actually became a mom before I was a mom.” Once we became caregivers in full capacity, we saw all the system’s imperfections, the challenges, and the struggles that caregivers experience in raising their relatives’ children. While we were

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fortunate to have the resources to work through the system that paved a good ending for our kids, I began to think and worry about those millions of families and caregivers across our country who do not have the capacity to advocate for themselves. Do those imperfections in the system refer to the serious lack of resources for kinship caregivers? Yes, there is a lack of resources available for kinship families. Initially, a lot of attention was given to regular foster care because there was a reluctance to place kids with relatives. The mindset was, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” implying that whatever personal failures your relative may have had, it must be your fault in the way that person was reared, and that is why these children do not need to be a part of that same family system. Another mindset that exists is that “if they’re your family, you shouldn’t need government funding to take care of them; they’re your responsibility.” But it couldn’t be further from the truth. When you look at a relative caregivers’ profile, many of them have low socioeconomic standing; they have multiple responsibilities. Some of them are sandwich generations taking care of not just their children but also their older parents, and they are the ones that need the economic support. Thank goodness these attitudes have changed, and now there is national (for the most part) preference for kin, but it has been a slow evolution. Relative caregivers can be licensed foster parents and can qualify to receive foster care payments. We also have the title IV-E Guardianship Assistance Program (GAP), where they can receive stipend payments for the care of children they have assumed legal guardianship for whom they previously cared for as foster parents. But the part of the challenge is that there is a whole population of informal caregivers who don’t access the aforementioned services. Moreover, it has been a practice across the nation where agencies purposely divert kin families away from being a licensed foster home. And the issue with diverting relative caregivers away from being licensed is that there are resources and support that come with being a licensed foster parent that our grand-families need and are barred from being able to access. Hence, with the new Family First federal legislation, some of those barriers are being lifted so that relative caregivers can become licensed to receive the stipend support for the children in their care. In the 2000s, Ohio and several other states set up kinship navigator programs, but they lost funding within a few years. Today, in Ohio, there are only a handful of such programs left to help grand-families. How is the role of a Kinship Navigator Program different from that of the Department of Job and Family Services? The main difference between the two is in their approach. The Department of Job and Family services are typically involved with

Kith & Kin | Jan. 2021

“One of the least studied areas in kinship care is the caregivers themselves. We... often forget that the caregivers need to be healthy and supported to function at their highest level.” — Dr. Denby-Brison

case management. And I don’t mean to be disparaging or minimize the usefulness of their services, but they perform case management that is usually not tailored to the needs of a particular child or the caregivers. Moreover, the Job and Family Departments across the nation carry huge caseloads, sometimes 30 or 40 families per social worker. In contrast, Kinship Navigators carry a smaller caseload and are tailored to a specific group’s needs. Two decades back, the Navigator Programs were set up through the US Children’s Bureau as demonstration projects. And through the program’s outcomes, they established that families were positively impacted by the navigator programs, as they received one-onone service guidance and information referral. The services they provided not only catered to the needs of the children but also the caregiver. But a lot of those were temporary. So we’re currently trying to re-establish the Kinship Navigator Project again because we know that those projects work. And once greater scientific evidence can be established backing the efficacy of kinship navigator models, we will be able to use IV-E money through the Families First legislative to pay for those services, and agencies across the U.S. will be able to divert a portion of their budget to IV-E funding to help families through the navigator program. Caregiver needs is a particular area of research for you. Would you give us some insight on what your research demonstrates? One of the least studied areas in kinship care is the caregivers themselves. We give all of our attention to the kids, but we often forget that the caregivers need to be healthy and supported to function at their highest level. My team and I have done a lot of research around the stress and strain of kinship caregivers, and most of our findings have been similar to other research, but alongside those results, our findings yielded some peculiarities. Our first finding shows that low-income kinship caregivers and kinship caregivers of color may have high stress and strain levels, like their European American counterparts. Still, their ability to parent is just as high, if not higher. If anything, the research demonstrates the opposite effect with European American caregivers who may


have higher incomes. We’re trying to communicate to the agencies that just because a person’s income may be lower doesn’t mean that they are not fit parents. Our second finding that runs parallel to the first is that the child's well-being is higher among the low socioeconomic group than the group that’s better resourced. Many minority low-income families are resilient, and they’ve learned how to parent and rear their children under extreme stressors. The psychological well-being of those kids’ experiences is at par with kids in the comparison group. My team and I look to really shore up the caregivers’ capacity because there is a definite positive correlation between a psychologically healthy caregiver and their kids’ psychological health. Furthermore, another research my team and I conducted suggests that male kinship caregivers are an overlooked commodity. They have incredible strengths and capacity, and the outcomes for their child-rearing capabilities don’t differ greatly from that of female caregivers.

essential resource that is an important consideration for caregivers, particularly caregivers who are older and may raise younger kids or kids with special needs who may require a lot more attention. Unfortunately, we currently don’t have enough Respite funding, but we are urging legislation to take notice and offer to fund. There’s an advocacy arm to our research, and what we are really pushing for this notion of 50-by-50. The idea is that we want to promote a culture of “think kin first” by asking all 50 states to make kinship care their primary placement of choice 50% of the time and urge them to maintain that number. Right now, it varies. Some states have about 25% of the kids in kinship care while others cap at 40%. We think this is the best way because if the child cannot live with their biological parent, placement with their kinfolks is the next best option over foster care. And we want to normalize this as a practice and want all of the Child Welfare Systems to embrace it and then fund it accordingly to support those caregivers and their families. ■

Does your research indicate that children paired with relative caregivers yield better outcomes over that with foster parents?

State resources:

Our research and other literature are pretty substantial there. We know kids raised with relative caregivers do better in terms of educational outcomes, a sense of belonging, and being grounded in their racial identity development. In terms of formal kinship caregiving, children put in relative care through the system show that kids in those homes have re-abuse rates lower than regular foster care. However, there’s some controversy in the literature. While some people say that for all the good with kinship care, those kids also lag in permanency; that is, their chance of either being adopted by their guardian or reunification with their biological family is low. But, new data by the Annie E. Casey Foundation counters that argument by showing that kids under kinship care achieve permanency at faster rates than kids in regular foster care. Lastly, upon reading this interview, what are some of the resources that kinship families in our community need to know exists that they might not be aware of? If you’re a formal kinship caregiver, meaning that the Child Welfare Agency has intervened and opened a case up for the child, and they’re tracking the child, that child is eligible for Medicaid. Oftentimes the Child Welfare Agency can make a referral for that child to get childcare services as well. Now, under the Family First Act, the whole triad is going to be eligible for services. By triad, I mean the parent, the grandparent, and the child can now get mental health, case management, job training, drug, alcohol counseling, and housing referral services. And for 12-months, the family can be eligible for these services free of charge through the IV-E funding that tries to bring the family back together to keep the child from going deeper into the system. I also think the Respite program is an

▶ Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Kinship Navigator Program 1-844-OHIO-KAN ▶ Ohio Kinship and Adoption Program 844-6446-526 ▶ Ohio Grandparents/Kinship Coalition 330-737-7128 ▶ Ohio Family Care Association 614-222-2712 ▶ Ohio State University Ohio Family Engagement Center 614-688-112 ▶ Public Children Services Association of Ohio 614-224-5802 ▶ The Ohio Benefit Bank 614-221-4336

National R esources: ▶ AARP Grandparent Information Center 888- 687-2277 (toll free) ▶ The Brookdale Foundation 212 -308 -7355 ▶ Child Welfare Information Gateway 800- 394-3366 (toll free) ▶ Child Welfare League of America 703 -412-2400 ▶ Children’s Defense Fund 202 628-8787 ▶ Generations United 202- 289-3979 ▶ Grandfamilies of America 866-203-3921 (toll free) ▶ National Aging Information Center 202- 619-0724 ▶ The Ohio State University Kinship Care Research and Resource https://bit.ly/33xx2Pu

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K it h & K in January 2021 | Issue: Kinship care

Profile for Srijita Chattopadhyay

Kith & Kin  

A prototype magazine that aims to bring non-traditional families in support and celebration of each other. The first issue of this prototyp...

Kith & Kin  

A prototype magazine that aims to bring non-traditional families in support and celebration of each other. The first issue of this prototyp...

Profile for srijita
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