By Nan Nan Liu
Northwest Asian Weekly
The nuclear family is no longer the norm. While single-parent families and extended families are on the rise, more children are now being raised by relatives other than their birth parents. Along with other financial and health challenges endured by senior citizens, many are also bearing the cost and burden of supporting their grandchildren full-time.
Kinship care in the United States is growing. According to the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), one of the most stunning changes in the child welfare system has been the major growth in the number of children in state custody living with relatives.
AARP reports that 7.8 million children are living in homes where grandparents or other relatives are the householders. More than 2.5 million grandparents are taking on the responsibility for these children.
“Their mother is divorced,” said a teary Wang Fu Ying, a 55-year-old Chinese immigrant and grandmother of two little ones. “I have to take care of the children [while their mother works full-time in a casino.]”
Why the growing trend in kinship care?
CWLA reports that abuse, neglect, drug addictions, parents’ incarcerations, and poverty are among the most common reasons for an increase in kinship care. Despite varying explanations to the growing trend, the wellbeing of the children is the main reason why more grandparents and relatives are stepping up as primary caretakers. Doing so provides children a more stable and loving environment than putting them in foster homes.
Aiti Maya Biskarma is 80 years old and in no condition to be a full-time parent, yet she takes care of her 14-year-old grandson by herself. For Biskarma, the choice was clear. It was either putting her grandson in an orphanage or foster home, or volunteering herself as a caretaker. Biskarma took on all parenting responsibilities, despite having no financial aid and other relatives for help.
“[I have raised him] since birth,” recalled Biskarma. “His parents … they both died. They were [exiled from Nepal]. They were sick and passed away in prison camp.”
Gui Lian, who is 48 years old, became the caretaker for her 2-year-old grandchild due to family hardships. Lian’s daughter suffers from physical disabilities, and is unable to care for the child. Lian’s grandchild is disabled and has problems walking.
“My girl’s mother has disabilities,” said Lian, “[and] no one helps me.”
Difficulties of kinship care
Biskarma, Ying, and Lian are all doing it alone. Feeling isolated is a major problem with kinship care, especially for aging adults. Identifying with other grandparents, for example, is also a problem. Most grandparents are enjoying their retirement instead of raising a child.
“I am alone,” admitted Biskarma, who took a large loan from the Nepalese government two years ago to bring her grandson to the United States. Although she knows of relatives living in Seattle, no one is able to help her out. Biskarma is unemployed.
“[It’ll be] two years in October [since we arrived in the United States],” said Biskarma. “[We have been living off of] food stamps, social security, and money from welfare.”
Biskarma also seeks assistance from Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS), but still feels impacted by the difficulties of raising a child by herself.
“I have no money. I cannot support him financially. I can’t take him to different places. He has no mom [or] dad, and I can’t provide for him,” confided Biskarma. “I can’t even buy him new clothes. I am very sad.”
On top of the pressures of supporting her grandson, Biskarma also worries about the money she owes the Nepalese government.
Although Ying and Lian have family around, they face other problems of raising young children.
Their physical abilities, for one, are limited.
“My hands are always in pain,” said Ying. “I feel quite tired.”
Lian totes a 9-month-old in a cloth carrier, while chasing after an active 5-year-old. She also copes with the physical stress of tending to the special needs of her disabled granddaughter. She admitted to feeling faint and suffering from fatigue.
Despite emotional, financial, and physical hardships, all three grandparents feel that stepping into the parenting role is the right thing to do. At the end of the day, it’s the children who matter the most.
“[I feel] happy and satisfied,” said Ying about spending time with her grandchildren.
“Happy,” agreed Lian, with a firm nod.
Effects of kinship care on children
Elizabeth Floro, who is now a full-time stay-at-home mom, remembers growing up under the care of her grandparents. Although her family did not fall under the dire situations that others have encountered, she recalls certain challenges about the experience.
“The only thing I can think of, as far as a disadvantage of having my grandparents raise me, is not being able to interact with my parents more. Because they worked, I barely saw them during the week,” said Floro
In many kinship care arrangements where the guardians are much older, guardians and children often face large culture and generation gaps. For Floro, the perceived problem also lent to some benefits.
“I think generational and cultural gaps are easily an issue in terms of grandparents raising grandchildren,” said Floro. “My parents understood they were raising [children] in another country than the one they were from and therefore, my grandparents adopted that mentality. However, our family made sure we learned about our own culture and heritage as well.”
Pei Shih is a teacher at Chinese Information and Services Center (CISC)’s bilingual school. She has seen many kinship care cases where the grandparents are the main caretakers. Shih certainly feels that there are many benefits to children from such a setup, especially for immigrant families.
“Most of these children have opportunity to learn and speak their home languages,” said Shih.
“There are certain family values, experiences, and stories from the past that can be shared and pass[ed] on from grandparents, [such as] grandparents’ immigrant stories and experiences, connection to their home county.”
General consensus concludes that the challenges for kids growing up under kinship care are still preferred to having the children sent to foster homes. Grandparents like Biskarma insist on raising their grandchildren despite old age, poverty, and loneliness.
“[My grandson] likes staying with me,” said Biskarma. “I just want to take care of him.”
“They do not want [to] send him to foster care as grandma [does] not allow him,” confirmed Mitra Dhital, case manager for the 14-year-old boy at ACRS.
Help is out there
Due to the startling growth of kinship care families in the United States, many organizations are beginning to take notice.
However, many of these resources are still unheard of in minority communities. So far, Ying, Lian, and Biskarma are all unaware of the possibility of receiving government aid.
However, Dhital is concerned about Biskarma’s wellbeing, and is trying to provide help and support for her.
“She needs someone to talk to,” said Dhital.
“Research shows kids fare better when they remain in the safe, stable, and familiar environment that relatives can provide,” said President and CEO Patrick McCarthy of the Annie E. Casey Foundation in a recent KIDS COUNT report. “We urge state policymakers to make crucial benefits and resources available to kinship families, so that their children can thrive and have the best shot at becoming successful adults.” (end)
Nan Nan Liu can be reached at email@example.com.