Amelia Hudak, 64, could have rested in retirement with her child-rearing days long behind her. That all changed a year ago because her now 7-year-old granddaughter needed her.
“Drugs, domestic violence, jail,” said Hudak about the reasons she now has full custody of her granddaughter. “She was in the foster system in Idaho for a year.”
After foster care, she was released to her father for three weeks until his arrest in Spokane, Hudak said. She stepped in, but it’s not been without struggles.
“I’ve had her ever since, but she’s extremely challenging,” Hudak said. Although Hudak worked in early education and knew about childhood issues, her granddaughter has displayed reactive attachment disorder, hyperactivity, PTSD, developmental delays, tantrums and meltdowns.
But Hudak has a sounding board: A Spokane Kinship Navigator support group that meets monthly for people in the same situation as her to share about experiences and find resources. She’s also tapped into a wrap-around mental health program with professionals supporting her.
More than 47,000 people – grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and older siblings – in the state care for a relative’s minor child, some temporarily and others for the long haul. The relatives step in when parents are unwilling or unable to provide care, said Patricia Robinson, with the Kinship Navigator program in Spokane.
She said reasons vary for why the relatives step in. In some cases, the parents have died. In others, parents are homeless, neglectful or addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“This group has been a lifesaver; there’s nothing else like this in the community,” Hudak said. “It’s a really good resource.”
Another challenge for older relatives is making connections among the circle of people in the child’s lives, such as connecting with parents of a child’s friends.
“It is tough and something we’ve talked about here a lot, about how it’s a real challenge for people my age to talk to their peers’ parents and establish relationships because we’re so much older. I’m retired so I don’t do much of the same activities.”
Similar stories were traded in a conference room Wednesday at the Frontier Behavioral Health office in Hillyard, when about six support group members gathered for an informal summer potluck.
Jan Taylor, 73, said she has helped raise her 5-year-old great-granddaughter. Taylor’s daughter, the child’s grandmother, also lived in the same home to care for the girl, who recently returned to another relative’s home.
“We had her for almost eight months, and we want custody of her,” Taylor said. “She just needs stability, a set schedule.
“As soon as she moved in with us, we gave her own room, although our apartment is small. We got her into school as soon as we could because she needed to be social with kids her own age and have some structure. The first few weeks we were working on the night terrors. We all camped on the floor together. Then we told her she was a big girl and decorated her room.
“Security is the main thing after they’ve been through trauma. Sometimes it takes a long while for that to work.”
In May, the two women heard from teachers how much the young girl’s behavior had improved.
“We were pleased at her school conference to hear how great she’s doing,” Taylor said. “They told us that her behavior was improved and she was immaculate every day.”
Grandfathers also are taking on the role of sole caretaker, which is the case for Fred Lear, 63. He has cared for his 2-year-old grandson since February while working part time.
“He’s my grandson, and he was having a difficult time in foster care,” he said. For a while, Lear had three grandsons, until the two older ones went to live with their dad. But the parents of the youngest are still resolving issues through the court, classes and Child Protective Services.
The boy and his grandfather take walks, play and watch Walt Disney movies. “He’s using my picnic table like a jungle gym,” Lear said. “He’s getting his exercise.”
He encourages others in this situation to go to court hearings and keep track of any incident reports, such as at child care if a kid gets injured in a fall. That’s to protect yourself as a caregiver, he said.
“Go to the court hearings, so you’ll know that’s going on, what’s being said and what’s not being said. Take a notebook with you even if you’re a spectator sitting in the back room.”
He credited Robinson with her help filling out some state paperwork. Relatives are putting themselves on a legal line, he said. And it’s a commitment.
“Now, it’s like 24/7 cook, bottle washer, diaper changer, bathing, bed time – times 100,” he added, laughing.
Since January, Robinson said she has talked with 83 clients for Kinship Navigator information to connect them to resources. Of those 83, the program served 51 eligible people to provide funds related to kinship care covering basic needs such as food, rent and the kids’ personal care.
“This year, I have served 152 kids with kinship navigation information, because I keep track with each call of how many kids,” she said.
Of those, 112 kids received clothes from a nonprofit, and 92 of them received funding for basic needs through Kinship Care.
Among caregivers she’s worked with, the youngest was 21 caring for two siblings. Most often, they’re grandparents in their 60s and 70s. Robinson hopes more caregivers will come to the support group meetings each month.
“I’m just a facilitator, so I’ll have resources out every month and sometimes we’ll do a topic,” Robinson said. “It’s all about taking care of the kinship caregiver because they spend so much time taking care of others.”
Frontier Behavioral Health and Elder Services administer the kinship support program. The group meets the second Wednesday of each month at the Frontier branch in Hillyard, 5125 N. Market St.
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