Kinship care: Grandmother of four takes on the unexpected

kinship care, Arizona
Kelly Ray and her granddaughter share a hug. Photos by Rick D’Elia.

Third in a series about foster parenting in Arizona

Four years ago, Kelly Ray left her job as a special needs instructor in Ohio to be closer to her daughters and grandchildren in Chandler. A recent widow, she looked forward to being near family, especially her grandchildren. She also had friends in the area and a cousin in Surprise.

She enjoyed life as the “fun grandma,” taking the kids on lunch dates or to the movies. She treasured time dining out with friends or making quick day trips on the weekends. She’d even landed a job as an assistant manager at the Country Inn and Suites near the Phoenix airport. Things were looking good.

Ray was on her way home from work on Aug. 22, 2016, when her phone rang. A voice on the line explained that Ray’s oldest daughter had been incarcerated. That was tough enough to hear, but it wasn’t all — the person wanted to know if Ray would be willing to take in her four grandchildren — a 12-year-old boy, a 7-year old girl and 6-year-old twin girls —  while their mother was in jail.

Of course her answer was yes. What else could it be? But that split-second decision turned Ray’s world upside down.

It could happen to anyone

When children are removed from their homes for any reason — abuse, neglect or simply because their parents are unable to care for them — the Arizona Department of Child Safety first seeks family members or friends who can step up to provide a temporary home. In most cases, grandparents are contacted. But it could be anyone: aunts, uncles, cousins, distant relatives, even friends and neighbors.

In fact, anyone reading this article could end up on the receiving end of a phone call like the one Ray answered. Anyone could be asked to provide what’s called “kinship care” to someone else’s children.

It’s a type of foster care, but with significant differences. And nearly half of Arizona’s children in foster care — 46 percent — are in a kinship-care setting, according Chrissy Edwards, foster care program supervisor for Child Crisis Arizona. The nonprofit provides emergency shelter for Maricopa County children from birth to age 10, licensing for prospective foster care and adoptive families and a myriad of other programs designed to keep children safe and create strong, successful families.

No time to prepare

Unlike the process for foster families — where weeks and sometimes years are spent contemplating the decision, taking classes, getting licensed and preparing to take in children — kinship caregivers typically must make the decision in under four hours. That’s the goal DCS has set for finding appropriate placements for children who have been removed from their homes.

Kinship care providers usually are caught off guard by this sudden turn of events and must immediately make room for extra children in their home.

For Kelly Ray, it meant cramming five people into her two-bedroom apartment and turning her living room into a makeshift bedroom at night. It also meant making sure her car was equipped to handle additional car seats.

On a personal level, the changes were even more significant. Ray had to put all plans for her own future on hold, from trips to Ohio to her lunches out with friends. She no longer had time for such things.

“I had to make adjustments,” Ray says. “But it’s working. For now, it’s working.”

RELATED: Nearly 18,000 kids are in foster care. What happens next is up to us.

kinship care, Arizona
Kelly Ray plays outside with her grandson, who shows her the new techniques he’s learning in basketball practice.

Limited support

Another way kinship care differs from typical foster care is in the amount of supplemental funding the state allots to providers. A licensed foster care family may receive $20.31 to $46.43 per child per day, depending on the child’s age and medical condition. Because it is not licensed, kinship care allows for just 63 cents to $2.63 per child per day. That doesn’t go far for care providers like Ray, who must stretch limited budgets to feed, clothe and otherwise meet the needs of several growing children.

Kinship care providers qualify for additional funding if they become licensed to provide foster care, but it is not easy to make time for the classes and paperwork when you have the sudden added obligations of extra children in your home. Still, Ray decided to pursue a license.

“I took the classes after I got the kids, which seems backwards,” she says. While her classmates were preparing for the day when there would be foster children in their lives, Ray says, she was “already in the boat.”

Still, it was worth the effort. “The classes help you understand what the children go through, and the grieving process of being detached from their mom and the life they knew,” she says. “They can’t always verbalize their feelings. I learned what to expect from the children and how to see things through their eyes.”

She pursued licensing through Child Crisis Arizona and found an immediate support system. “The community is pretty awesome,” she says. Ray describes a Christmas party at the Child Crisis Center where Santa came and brought presents for the children. She says it was wonderful to be with other families in similar situations, and to feel part of a larger community.

A temporary solution

Kinship care, like all foster care, is not a permanent situation. When children are removed from their homes, they become wards of the state, and this is how it remains until it can be determined whether reunification with their original families is possible.

“Reunification is the top priority for these kids,” says Ray. “We want them to go home.” But because the children are wards of the state, Ray’s grandchildren do not really belong to her in the way that they used to.

Most of the decisions Ray makes for the children have to be approved by the state. This includes everything from haircuts to church activities to doctor’s appointments to discipline measures. “If I want to take them on a trip, I would have to get that verified,” she says.

And because she’s responsible for all four of them at all times, “I don’t get one-on-one time with them anymore,” she says. “We used to enjoy our ‘date’ days.” The state requires that Ray be accountable for the kids’ therapy sessions, physical wellness checks, visitations, DCS check-ins, court appointments and more.

“It’s very invasive to privacy and time consuming,” says Ray. But she’s willing to do it for her grandchildren.

“My life is now focused on them,” she says. “Since I’ve had them, I’ve had only one day and one full night when I wasn’t with them. There’s no ‘me’ time. I’m back to square one. Sometimes, it’s just havoc. We cannot get away from each other. There are three girls, and then we add to that a big brother who wants to jump in and tease. It was hard getting them into a routine, and I had one with tantrum problems. I had trouble going to the store without someone having a screaming fit on me, or they would all want to go in separate directions. But they’ve adjusted really well now. We’re getting it.”

kinship care, Arizona
Kelly Ray colors with her granddaughters.

Keeping the family connected

Ray maintains a close relationship with her daughter, which she recognizes is fortunate. Not all families are able to remain on good terms, which Ray says “makes it ten times worse — like a bad divorce.”

“My daughter appreciates everything I do for the kids,” Ray says. “She’s a wonderful mother who made some bad decisions. [The kids are] really looking forward to seeing their mom again.”

She saves pictures and keeps a journal so her daughter will have a record of the milestones she missed in her kids’ lives — like the day her 7-year-old learned to ride a bicycle.

The children keep in touch with their mom through phone calls — three times a week — and postcards, which have strict restrictions on size and content. At least it’s something.

Ray looks forward to the day when her grandchildren can go home. “I tell them moms are the ones that are fun,” she says. “They do crafts. They sing songs. They have the patience and energy that sometimes grandmas do not.”

She may doubt her own capacity for patience and energy, but it is evident in her description of a recent outing to the store, where she waited quietly while the children argued over who would put cans of soup in the basket.

“Sometimes they thank me for taking such good care of them while their mommy can’t,” Ray says. “Sometimes they can’t say it, because they miss their mom so much.”

While family reunification is always the goal, sometimes it is not possible. Reunification is decided by the courts, and parents must meet certain goals to regain custody of their children, according to Edwards. The DCS website describes these goals, which include the parents’ ability to show that they have adequately addressed whatever factors in their own behavior or the home environment originally put the children at risk.

When children are in kinship care, providers are asked if they would be willing to adopt the children if parental ties are severed. Not all kinship care providers will agree to adoption. Failed reunification efforts can prove devastating to the kids, who must be relocated to other foster care families, Edwards says.

Ray has already agreed to adopt her grandchildren if that becomes necessary. Grandparents in this situation are often forced to choose between loyalty to their own children and the grandchildren who suddenly need them so desperately. If the court determines that parents may no longer have access to their children, adoptive grandparents cannot allow their own children into their home.

Part of what they are taught by caseworkers and licensing agencies is that the grandchildren must come first. The grandchildren need them the most and are the most vulnerable.

Finding support

Families that provide kinship care have had a difficult situation thrust upon them. They are forced to do their best, often with limited resources.

Sometimes these families are afraid to ask for help, says Edwards. They develop fears about “the system,” and can view any assistance as an extension of that system. They may be floundering, but fear losing the kids if they admit to it. They may feel isolated.

Connecting with an agency, like Child Crisis Arizona, can be an important first step toward relief. Assistance is available in a number of areas, including respite care, counseling and access to donations, clothing closets or tickets to local events.

All of us, as a community, can support kinship and foster families by donating to charities that serve them or offering assistance through respite care and mentorship.

In the coming months, RAK will highlight ways to help foster children across Arizona, so we can give these kids, who are victims of circumstances beyond their control, a real chance at life.

Ray says her experience has changed every member of the family. “In a way, these are going to be totally new kids when they return home. I feel bad that their mother is missing their milestones, but sometimes parents need that wake-up call. They realize what they took for granted.”

She also looks forward to a bright future for her daughter and grandchildren. “No one can take the place of the bond parents have with their kids. Their parents can make some bad choices, but they still love their kids. They just get on the wrong path, and the hope is that they can be gently brought back.”

In the meantime, we need to make sure the kids get a chance to keep learning and growing and feeling loved. Thanks to people like Kelly Ray, and with help from the community, that can happen.