When parents can no longer take care of their children, what happens next?
Many times, relatives will step in, typically grandparents, to raise their son or daughter’s family. The reasons for kinship care are multiple and rarely, if ever, positive.
“All of [them] involve parents not being available,” said Gerard Wallace, director of the New York State Kinship Navigator, based in Albany. “There’s obviously the death of parents [or] mental illness. Incarceration is a large issue, particularly since women as a portion of the prison population has increased over the last 20 years. And then there are the reasons that are associated with really bad parenting. We have a lot of child abuse and neglect, abandonment of children. Drug and alcohol abuse is very, very common. These are reasons that children get into the care of relatives.”
But another cause for kinship care is the rise in number of single-parent households.
“Under 30, there are more single mothers than there are married mothers, and that means the risk of getting to zero with even no parents is doubled,” Wallace said. “You worry about dysfunctional families in which there’s been a perpetuation of cross generations of behavior that is destructive. While there are certainly families like that in kinship care, in all the studies, that’s not the case. Everybody knows a story of a parent who can’t pull it together or is irresponsible or has very legitimate reasons that they can’t parent and those [kids] wind up with relatives, and that’s the majority of what goes on.”
Wallace, an attorney who has spent a large part of his career working in kinship care, initiated and developed the Kinship Navigator, a statewide program funded since 2006 by the New York State Legislature and operated by Catholic Family Center. In New York state, there are an estimated 153,000 children living in kinship care; almost 5,000 of these children live in Onondaga County alone. The program’s website, nysnavigator.org, is designed to provide caregivers with answers on kinship legal issues, events, assistance and specialized services.