Mary never imagined she would be a mom again after her two biological children grew up. She was content with her life. Those expectations were shattered when tragedy led her nephew Ben to her doorstep.
Mary’s mom passed away, leaving pain and uncertainty in her wake. Before her death, Mary’s mom had been helping Mary’s sister care for Ben and his three siblings. After the loss, Mary’s sister turned to drugs and alcohol and could no longer care for her children. Sadly, the children were separated into different homes. Ben and one of his sisters moved in with a relative.
Ben struggled in his new home. He was getting in trouble at school. His relatives said he was stealing and lying, while he claimed they were violent with him. The turmoil continued and the court decided to remove Ben from the home and place him in foster care. That’s where Mary reenters the story.
Right before Ben was removed, a Child Protective Services worker contacted Mary and asked if she would be willing to try to take in her nephew. Mary didn’t hesitate. She met with a judge and learned what she needed to do to bring Ben home. As a newly divorced mother with two grown children, adding another child to the mix would without a doubt affect her financially. That’s when the Kinship Guardian Assistance Program, or KinGAP, came into view.
Virginia lawmakers passed legislation to create the program in 2018. KinGAP is rooted in a growing need – many relatives would like to take in their family members’ children, but due to the costs, many hesitate to do so, or take them in and later are forced to give them back up. The need is worsened by the drug epidemic.
Kinship care is more common than you may realize. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in 2016, 71,000 kids in Virginia lived in the care of grandparents. An additional 55,000 lived in kinship care with other relatives.
KinGAP is administered by the Virginia Department of Social Services. The goal is to provide financial assistance, support, and guidance to families learning how to parent children who are coping with trauma and transition. Children can maintain a relationship with family even if their parents cannot parent them.
To be eligible for KinGAP, the child must be related by blood, marriage, or adoption to the foster parent, have been placed with the relative in foster care for 6 months, and the options of reunification with the birth family or adoption must have been ruled out.
Harrisonburg-Rockingham Department of Social Services introduced Mary to the KinGAP program. She believed the program would help her better care for Ben. She also learned that she needed to become a licensed foster parent, so she went searching for an agency to help her through the process. She found DePaul’s local office and the journey began.
“I’ve never had anybody this willing to help me or the children out like DePaul,” says Mary.
In November 2018, Ben was placed in Mary’s home.
“When he came through the door the first time, he opened the door and said, ‘I’m home,’” recounted Mary, full of emotions. “He always knew when he was with me that he was home, loved and wanted.”
Ben’s transformation in her home was incredible. He wasn’t acting out and learned consequences. He was doing better in school. He stopped lying, or as Mary puts it, “learned to trust somebody with the truth.”
After becoming a licensed foster parent and meeting all the KinGAP qualifications, Mary was granted full custody of Ben this September. She sings the praises of the KinGAP program and encourages others to consider it.
“I am thankful. Being a single parent can be hard, but I am so happy to have the support I need to keep him with me,” says Mary.
While Mary is grateful that KinGAP helped bring Ben home, she says it has been a little bittersweet. Fighting for custody of him forced her to move away from her family, and emotions still run high between them. It’s tough, but worth it for her.
Ben is 15 years old now. He’s healthy and happy. He still gets to see two of his siblings sometimes, and he hopes their relationships will stay strong.
Kinship placement is not something to be taken lightly, and the KinGAP program is complex. At DePaul, staff are working hard to learn more about the program and put policies in place that allow KinGAP to be accessible and attainable. DePaul holds tight to the hope that every kid in foster care will find a home, and if KinGAP can help make that hope a reality, then every bit of work will be worth it.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.