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An Ontario Grandmother Shares What It's Like Being A Kinship Caregiver Of Two

They play a crucial role, but the lack of support can cause hardships.

“You have a grandson and he needs a home.”

Earlier this year, Rhonda*, 56, found herself responsible for a newborn overnight, after answering a phone call from Children’s Aid Society (CAS). Her estranged daughter had given birth to a boy, they told her, but wasn’t able to take the baby home. Unless Rhonda stepped in, her youngest grandson would likely go into foster care.

Rhonda and her husband made the decision to bring him home quickly after all, they had made the same choice five years ago, when they were in their early fifties and brought home his older brother, who was three weeks old at the time.

Rhonda is a “kinship” service caregiver. Kinship service and kinship care are similar, but distinct, forms of family permanency that place children and youth in the care of relatives or close family friends, without being legally adopted.

Kinship care providers take all the required steps to become CAS-approved foster parents and receive the same financial supports other foster parents get. The state is still legally responsible for the children. And kinship service caregivers like Rhonda can bring children into their home without fostering; CAS supervises them, but does not offer the same supports.

There aren’t national numbers on how many families are formed this way in Canada, but in recent years it has become more common. For example, one in four Ontarian kids who needed to be placed outside of their parental home last year stayed with a relative, the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies reports.

Kin carers tend to skew older, as most are “skip-generation” families like Rhonda’s. According to the last census, more than 32,000 Canadian children living outside of their parental home are raised by their grandparents, in contrast to more than 28,000 kids being raised by all other family members.

‘Culture shift’ to asking family before foster care

Placing children with family members first, when possible, is a policy that Canadian social service agencies haven’t always supported. On the contrary: Policies that force Indigenous families apart have led to more Indigenous children being in foster care or group homes than there ever were in the residential school system, for instance.

Watch: residential schools’ ‘ugly’ impact on Indigenous youth mental health. Story continues below.

In Alberta, adoption agency staff describe a “culture shift” across the province, to asking relatives first. “Focusing on family-based options over group care” is also a major focus in Ontario’s re-design of its provincial child welfare strategy.

This lines up with the positive outcomes for kids in kin families reported by researchers. Statistically, children whose biological parents are unable to raise them fare better, when raised by kinship caregivers, in areas such as long-term emotional wellbeing, the extent of their trauma, and connections to their cultural background. They’re also more likely to be able to keep a biological parent in their lives, through visits or various forms of communication.

Non-biological parents get varying amounts of Employment Insurance (EI) in Canada, after bringing a child home. Typically they do not receive parental leave and benefits for those first months, a reality that child welfare advocates criticize. A report by Western University researchers has indicated that introducing “attachment leave” benefits would give children time to form attachments with their kin caregivers, after having gone through trauma and loss.

Canada’s opioid crisis has had a ripple effect on the number of children requiring care outside of their parental home: As HuffPost Canada reporter Emma Paling previously reported, the number of kids in Ontario entering the child welfare system has risen dramatically because parents who use substances are either unable to provide adequate care or they are dying from overdoses.

And while the two boys Rhonda raises are healthy, she has noticed many of her fellow kinship caregivers, who may call themselves “kin parents,” can’t access much-needed supports for children they’re raising who have a trauma history or challenges resulting from substance exposure in utero.

Raising her daughter’s children is sometimes made harder by the stigma and intrusive questions people ask. But as Rhonda shared with HuffPost Canada, raising her grandchildren, who call her “Mama,” comes with plenty of intergenerational joy too.

Below, Rhonda shares what it’s like to be a kin caregiver, in her own words:

“For many kin parents or caregivers, it has been years since they’ve had a baby or child in the house. It can be a big adjustment. You’re being monitored by CAS which, even if you have a good relationship with them, is a little intimidating. There is the added stress that any parenting misstep — such as a trip to the ER for stitches — will be recorded and judged.

And while kin caregivers have all the day-to-day responsibilities of raising children, decision-making rights remain with either the CAS or the biological parents.

Second time around, we’re a lot smarter being parents. We’re more mellow. If the kid wants a brownie for breakfast, we’ll probably laugh it off. I’m very blessed with two healthy boys, but certainly feel for kin parents who have taken on kids struggling with health challenges. It can be very isolating for the older grandmothers doing it.

“You’re being monitored by CAS which, even if you have a good relationship with them, is a little intimidating.”

- Rhonda

There is a general misconception that if kin stepped aside, the children in their care could be adopted by parents who are more age appropriate or have better resources, especially in the case of babies. But people don’t understand that even babies would not be ‘available’ for adoption placement without a lengthy process of attempts at reconciliation with one or both biological parents and months or even years in foster care. I personally think foster care is not an appropriate place for a baby to be: It guarantees at least one more significant loss in their life.”

Bonds with biological parents are tricky to navigate

“The oldest, he can remember his biological mom from pictures. We tell him good stories about her, calling her his ‘tummy mommy’ or by her name. When she doesn’t show up to her visits, we tell him, ‘She’s just like that sometimes.’ It’s tough on kids. Even in cases where there is anger with a bio parent, most of us still hope a bio parent can get their act together to be a part of their child’s life.

"She's just like that sometimes," is how Rhonda explains to her son his biological mom's absence from some of their planned supervised visits.
"She's just like that sometimes," is how Rhonda explains to her son his biological mom's absence from some of their planned supervised visits.

“There’s all kinds of things that can happen with supervised custody visits, including that the parent doesn’t show up or they open old wounds.

But there is also the joy you can have those times when the biological parent has a great experience with the children, say when you can share a Christmas meal or a trip to the pumpkin patch. You know then that it’s so important for both of them to have that experience together and that it most likely would never happen if the children had left the extended family.”

Your ready-for-retirement lifestyle changes drastically

“You’re trying to put money aside for retirement, but that’s hard to do. In Ontario, some of the municipalities supply people with Ontario Works’ temporary care assistance. A lot of municipalities will cut that off when permanent custody is granted — which isn’t really permanent. Biological parents can bring the case to court every six months and often get legal aid to do so.

While I was working I had daycare provided for me. It was a huge help, but that’s not available across the board.

I’ve heard from kin families raising teenagers that it’s especially hard. They may need to postpone their retirement in order to afford the costs of having a child in your home, to save for college, or to keep employee health benefits, which are so important when you’re raising children.

Private counselling for adoptive families is sometimes paid for through adoption support agreements, but not for kin families. I know a lot of families that are at the end of their rope helping children manage their trauma or issues related to in-utero substance exposure.”

You may slip through the cracks for parental benefits

“I have a good career and twice my employer has given me their best wishes as I vanished for nine months, after each of the boys moved in. But I was denied parental leave through EI five years ago when I applied. The way it is written, you get leave if a child was placed for adoption in your home or is your biological child. Well, my son was never placed for adoption. I appealed, and it got resolved, but it took some time, so I went 17 weeks without pay.”

In a 2010 survey of Ontario agencies,<a href="https://www.childwelfareinstitute.torontocas.ca/sites/childwelfareinstitute/files/09%20Ontario%20Child%20Welfare%2C%20Survey%20on%20Kinship%20Services.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 96 per cent said &ldquo;financial constraints&rdquo; were a barrier</a> for kin families pursuing permanent, legal custody.&nbsp;
In a 2010 survey of Ontario agencies, 96 per cent said “financial constraints” were a barrier for kin families pursuing permanent, legal custody. 

We are the lucky ones: I had RRSPs and could take out some money. But many people are not and can’t take time off work. I could not imagine being in the position where I had to let a child go into foster care because I couldn’t afford to take care of them.”

Families need more mental health support

“Kin families have a lot of grief. We’re grieving the relationships we had with the bio parents ― our own children or our own siblings. And with that grief comes anger and sadness.

“I could not imagine being in the position where I had to let a child go into foster care because I couldn’t afford to take care of them.”

- Rhonda

There’s incredible sadness when you’re bathing a baby and realize your own child won’t know this joy with their child. It’s sad at Christmas: Other people have all their family members and talk about how great it was. We always have a generation missing at ours.”

"There is always a connection between grieving for your first relationship with the biological parent that has been &lsquo;lost&rsquo; through addiction, illness, incarceration or death <i>and</i> the joy of raising and loving a new little person," Rhonda said.
"There is always a connection between grieving for your first relationship with the biological parent that has been ‘lost’ through addiction, illness, incarceration or death and the joy of raising and loving a new little person," Rhonda said.

“A lot of us feel like we’re viewed as a temporary thing. But when you’ve had a child for three years, do you think about getting a bigger house? Starting an educational savings plan? Changing your will?

If you look at it from the child’s view, they’re wondering: Who are our parents? Do we invest our hearts in this family, knowing we might have to leave?”

Finding friends to lean on is hard

“You lose a lot of friends, who have no interest because they’re past the age of having kids and don’t have much in common with us anymore. I can’t go out for lunch with somebody and catch-up, for example.

“It’s sad at Christmas: Other people have all their family members and talk about how great it was. We always have a generation missing at ours.”

- Rhonda

The community of parents with kids don’t hang out with me either, because I’m the age of their mom. Not a lot of them chat with me at the Early Childhood Centre.

I tried to start a kinship support group in my area, but it’s hard to get people out for the evenings when they’re taking care of school-age kids. Plus, the pandemic happened, and I have a newborn to take care of.”

Despite the challenges, raising kids is fulfilling

“Life is different, but it’s good. I’ve never regretted bringing them home. My oldest has a sense of humour, he calls me Grandma when he wants to bug me. They’ve brought us so much joy that I can’t even describe it.

A stock image of a kinship carer and their child.
A stock image of a kinship carer and their child.

“My husband and I often hear, ‘Oh, those boys are lucky to have you!’ or ‘You are saints for doing this.’

I reply with, ‘We are the lucky ones.’ They are not lucky to have been born into their circumstances and had such a significant early loss.

“They’ve brought us so much joy that I can’t even describe it.”

- Rhonda

My relationship with my daughter has been difficult. We really struggled with her behavioural issues. But, I still love her. She is a good person underneath her problems and I choose to look at these boys as her gift to me.”

*Name has been changed due to privacy concerns.

Are you a kin parent? These organizations may help:

National

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