For the past five years, the New York State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo (D), along with more than a dozen other states and the United States Senate and House, have issued resolutions/proclamations to commemorate September as “Kinship Care Month.” The idea is to promote support for grandparents, other relatives and family friends who are raising children.
It has been a long, hard slog to build up recognition and awareness around a term used to describe the millions of kin stepping up to care for this country’s children. And all of it is being jeopardized by a nonprofit called Generations United, and its insistence on promoting an alternate term: “grandfamilies.”
Currently, kinship care is the dominant term. Many federal and state laws and regulations use the words “kinship” or “kinship care” to reference the over 2.7 million children living with kin; 139,000 of whom are in foster care. The Children’s Bureau Child Welfare Information Gateway defines kinship care as “the full-time care, nurturing, and protection of a child by relatives, members of their Tribe or clan, godparents, stepparents, or other adults who have a family relationship to a child.”
A Google search uncovers over 19.7 million kinship care references. FindLaw shows 300-plus statutes with the term in at least 40 states and over 15 references to kinship in U. S. Code Title 42 child welfare laws. The Fostering Connections Act (2008) and the Families First Act (2018) fund kinship guardian and navigator programs, and for the past three years Congress has appropriated $20 million to states to implement kinship navigator programs.
Most organizations, laws and regulations, research papers, websites, programs, guides, and promotional materials use the term kinship. The Child Welfare League of America has since 1991. Ohio provides $8 million for OhioKAN (Ohio Kinship and Adoption Navigator). In New York, we’ve had a statewide Kinship Navigator since 2005.
In comparison, no state or federal laws, few programs and a comparatively small number of research and policy papers use “grandfamilies.”
Yet, instead of kinship care, grandfamilies is persistently used by Generations United, Grantmakers in Aging, and other Beltway organizations. The term specifically harkens to the image of a grandparent, even though between 35-45% of kinship caregivers are not.
Until recently, the marketing of the term was frustrating, yet legally innocuous. But in 2019, Congress introduced the “The Grandfamilies Act” and the “Help Grandfamilies Prevent Child Abuse Act.” Oddly, both bill texts barely mention grandfamilies – using kinship or caregivers more frequently. But the danger of enactment is that the bills would codify the word grandfamilies and lead to wider use of the term.
Making matters worse, the Administration for Community Living’s “Advisory Council to Support Grandparents Raising Grandchildren,” where Generations United has an outsized influence, published a May interim statement on a “blended harmonized term” which suggest defining grandfamilies as care by grandparents and kinship care as care by non-grandparents.
This silliness needs to end. Otherwise, federal funding streams dedicated to kinship navigators and other services will need to incorporate references to grandfamilies. Statutes and regulations will need clarification. Programs will need to revise their titles, websites and guides. Federal and state policies, including manuals, advisories and administrative directives, will have to add grandfamilies.
All kinship families face daunting obstacles. There’s the emotional toll of caring for traumatized children and then there are many barriers to services, including child welfare diversion, access to public assistance and to mental and health services, school enrollment and custody disputes. Because they are not a “class” that is consistently described, laws and services sometimes target only grandparents or grandparents and blood relatives (often limited to a certain degree of consanguinity) – leaving out step-grandparents, other non-blood relatives, and “fictive” kin. Using the term “grandfamilies” only will increase the likelihood of exclusion.
The word is also just plain offensive to aunts, uncles, cousins, other relatives, tribal members and family friends who are caregivers. They feel left out, even though just as much as grandparents, they deserve our admiration and support. In 2005, I chaired the first statewide kinship summit in Albany. In my opening remarks, I talked about grandparents caring for children. A hand went up in the audience and an irate uncle, who was raising his niece, complained that he felt excluded.
He was not alone. Anyone working in kinship care knows many “other relatives and family friends.” It’s just part of our traditions. Think about Auntie Em and Dorothy “There’s no place like home.” It was Auntie Em’s home.
Service providers and non-grandparent caregivers then and even more so now, feel that usage of words that imply only grandparents derogates their value and sacrifice.
Why should we force the use of the word grandfamilies that so many dislike? One consistent term that identifies all caregivers of children would ensure that services don’t purposely or inadvertently fail to include so many. By promoting the use of kinship care and Kinship Care Month, we come closer to the recognition of the realities of kinship care, and what all these caregivers are doing for vulnerable children.
The word grandfamilies should not be codified. We should celebrate all kinship caregivers in September, and lawmakers should strive to promote kinship care as the common term of art.