Grandparents as Foster Parents: The New Family on the Block
By Tonya Davis, PhD, Karen Ethridge, PhD, & Natasha Black, MS (Alabama A&M University)
“We thought we were done raising children. We love our grandchildren, but we are too old to raise more children.”
This statement was made by an African-American couple in their late sixties who we will call the Does. The Does assumed custody of their 8 and 12 year-old grandchildren after they were placed in foster care resulting from their mother’s arrest for child endangerment and drug possession. Later, authorities determined the mother had been arrested during a drug raid. Meanwhile, the children were left home alone for 3 days. While this story is a heartbreaking tale of woe, it is only one of the many scenarios associated with children in the child welfare system.
The phenomenon of grandparents serving as custodial parents is a persistent reality given the record numbers of children entering into the foster care system. Of the 427, 910 children in foster care in 2015, 30%, or 127, 821, are in the care of a relative according to the Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System. Family arrangements that include placements with a grandparent or a relative are referred to as kinship family placements. Evidence suggests that children who cannot live with their biological parents fare better overall when living with extended family than with non-related foster parents.
Research has shown that children raised by grandparents in kinship placements are at higher risk of a mental illness, as well as academic and behavioral difficulties. Compounding the difficulty is that most grandparent incomes consist of fixed or retirement incomes that are below poverty lines. Thus, grandparents’ serving as foster parents is a population trending towards an increased need of an array of counseling and case management services.
Treatment Issues Unique to Foster Grandchildren
The Triad Complication:
Kinship family arrangements usually involve a triangular dynamic that include the biological parent, grandparent, and the child. Implications associated with this dynamic often include:
increased stress levels,
behavioral acting out by the child as well as feelings of guilt and shame.
When differences of opinion arise, this can serve as a major contributor of stress for caregivers (the grandparent).
Grandparent Anxiety/Stress Triggers:
As stressors and anxiety perpetuate, the foster grandparents are less inclined to maintain their own health and financial stability. Their anxiety is triggered by:
limited financial support
declining health issues, and
school related concerns
In the child welfare system, social workers will assist with providing an array of services such as financial assistance as long as the children are still in the legal custody of the state system, but when granted full custody the financial burden is transferred to the foster grandparent.
Child Identity Crisis:
Social separation from the birth parent, according to Bowlby (1973), will create a variety of emotional and behavioral problems stemming from attachment to separation disorder. Subsequently, most foster grandchildren reside in the grandparents’ home, while maintaining interaction with their birth parents depending on their case. This connection to their birth parent can cause role confusion within the child. The child will begin to question: Who is my caregiver? Who do I obey? And most importantly, who do I trust? These inquiries result in a rise of conflict on rules and boundaries for the child, as well as discipline and a sense of permanency. This becomes the presenting problem that mental health professionals will devise a treatment plan to resolve.
How can mental health professionals assist intergenerational families?
Promoting proactive mental health…
By using various psychological interventions, the mental health professional can build family strengths while proactively delivering services that reduce adverse outcomes for grandparents and grandchildren. Aims of therapy should include techniques designed to reduce tensions between the resistant child and grandparent and improve coping for both grandparent and grandchild. Therapists should not neglect providing individual sessions for the grandparent to work through anxiety/stressors.
Connecting the school and grandparent partnership…
Research has indicated that family/school partnerships are important. More importantly, interventions should occur across home, school, and community settings. Schools are in a unique position to assist foster grandparents by serving as ecological contexts for reciprocal learning. Intergenerational learning activities may serve as one method for assisting with bridging the gap for foster grandparents. Specifically, schools may establish grandparent councils, grandparent support groups, and other services designed to assist grandparents with caring for the academic and behavioral needs of their grandchildren.
Integrating dynamic social workers in the child welfare system…
A dynamic social worker will educate foster grandparents on the resources available. Most foster grandparents are not aware of the financial, educational, medical and psychological services available to them. The social worker will use community resources to connect foster grandparents as social support for each other and accountability agents of healthier lifestyles. The psychological and medical treatment of both the grandparent and the grandchildren can be addressed by promoting awareness of access to insurance options and public health care options that contribute lower out-of-pocket costs of visits.
Bowlby, J. (1973). Separation. London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.
Care and Custody: Summary & Analysis. Retrieved from www2.grandfamilies.org/CareandCustody/CareandCustodySummaryAnalysis.aspx
US Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families. Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System (AFCARS). (2012). Report 19. Retrieved from: www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/cb/resource/afcars-report-19.
Tonya Davis, PhD, is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and a Licensed Professional Counselor Supervisor working in private practice for over 15 years providing counseling and assessment services for families and children. She has an extensive history of working with families and children from diverse ethnic backgrounds, as well as children who have experienced trauma. She currently serves on the faculty of Alabama A&M University as an Assistant Professor in the Psychology & Counseling Department. She completed her doctoral degree in School Psychology from the University of Alabama. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
Karen Ethridge, PhD, currently serves as an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University. She received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Sociology from The University of Alabama in Huntsville. She earned her Master of Science in Psychology (with a concentration in Personnel Administration and Industrial Organizational Psychology) from Alabama A&M University in Normal, Alabama. She completed her doctoral degree in Educational Psychology from Capella University. Her research interests are academic self-efficacy and academic success in college students. She is currently the co-director of the Prevention and Learning Lab at Alabama A&M University where one of the goals is to focus on instructional learning and efficacy. She has worked with the Madison County Department of Human Resources as a Social Service Supervisor from 1998 to 2004. Since 2004, she initially served as an adjunct professor, then as an assistant professor at Alabama A&M University in the Psychology and Counseling Department. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Natasha R. Black is a current student at Alabama A&M University completing her second Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. She has completed her first Master’s degree in Family and Consumer Sciences with a concentration in Human Development with Alabama A&M University as well. Her experience includes clinical mental health services, a history of work with at-risk youth and their families, and comprehensive work with the intellectually disabled. Her research interests include neuropsychology advancement, family and child psychology, and human psychological development.