Updated: Oct 28, 2021
When life fundamentally changed for a young family, kinship care became the answer.
(Albany, New York) To Denise family is everything. Her devotion, however, would be tested when she received a phone call from her sister saying she was in trouble with the law and could no longer care for her three-year-old daughter. Denise had just 24 hours to pick up her niece in New York City. In 24 hours, Denise’s life would fundamentally change and her family would grow ‘one member bigger’ to include little Jayla.
Only days before the call, Denise and her husband Jeremiah both lost their jobs. Every penny was dedicated to feeding their family and there wasn’t time to consider the financial
implications of supporting another child. As Denise and her husband sped toward the City, her mind raced. Jeremiah looked over reassuring her with the same words he always used. We’ll figure it out. We always figure it out. Little did they know, they wouldn’t have to figure it out alone.
Upon returning to Albany with Jayla, Denise set out to connect with local organizations who
could offer support for her family. She made countless calls but without custody, quickly ran
out of options. As Jayla’s non-parental relative, their relationship fell under kinship care. Kinship care is not a new concept but it is a relatively new Social Services resource. Not all supportive care organizations offer kinship care programs. Unlike foster care or other child protective services where caregivers have months or even years of planning and preparation, kinship caregivers are often appointed under duress or emergency family circumstances. Like Denise, many are not given adequate time to prepare for a child’s arrival. It is also common for kinship caregivers to face unique barriers specific to their family circumstances that can hinder access and eligibility for support.
When Jayla first came to live with Denise, she was behind on all of her vaccines and didn’t
qualify for the family’s health insurance. Denise and Jeremiah had to pay for Jayla’s medical bills entirely out-of-pocket, which severely depleted what money they had left.
“My mom used to take in stray kids all the time. Where I come from, those kinds of things are normal for us but knowing that there is help isn’t so common,” says Denise of her experience searching for assistance.
With financial stressors weighing on her mind, Denise took a drive through Albany. A billboard for St. Catherine’s Kinship Caregiver Program aimed at supporting non-parental caregivers caught her eye. Denise called and was quickly paired with program coordinator Tiffany Carroll and the Kinship Care team immediately got to work assisting them.
Within minutes of hanging up the phone Tiffany was online ordering pink outfits, a bed frame, mattress, and unicorn bedding to put a smile on Jayla’s face and help her feel at home. Within days everything was delivered. When Jayla saw her new bed, both she and her two-year-old cousin jumped and danced for joy on it together. Tiffany presented the girls with a backpack full of supplies and sat down to color with them – showing them how to trace their hands with the crayons.
With the kinship care team advocating and working directly with the family court in New York City, Denise and her husband quickly obtained legal custody of Jayla. With custody they were able to secure health insurance and make other important decisions about Jayla’s wellbeing. Denise found support for herself through St. Catherine’s kinship caregiver group sessions. Group members are connected to a network of caregivers who, like themselves, are negotiating the challenges and rewards of kinship care. Extending heart and home to a child relative can invite tension into the family leaving caregivers feeling frustrated and alienated.
“The group sessions let me hear others say out loud what I’ve been feeling and know that someone else understands,” Denise shares.
There is no single formula for kinship care relationships to be a successful and positive
experience for every family. It usually consists of equal parts love, devotion, empathy,
supportive care services, and timing. Kinship caregivers are not alone. Relatives and close
friends raising children that are not their own is an arrangement as old as time, but only
recently has it been addressed on a mass scale. As awareness around kinship care grows,
organizations such as St. Catherine’s will likewise expand to meet the ongoing and
contemporary challenges of kinship families in need.
Leah Scott, MBA
St. Catherine’s Center for Children