The BDN recently featured a story about a grandmother, Wendy, who found herself caring for her grandchild in retirement as her son and his partner struggled with addiction. Wendy is not alone.
Her family is joined by nearly 17,000 such families in our state and 8 million nationwide who are headed up by a relative caregiver, a grandparent, aunt or uncle who is caring for a child.
Grandfamilies, families where a relative has stepped in to care for a child, are increasingly common, a response to the widespread impact of substance abuse, incarceration and mental illness in our country. Such caregivers come from all walks of life but have one thing in common: a desire to support their relative children and keep them safe.
To be sure, kinship caregiving is complex and requires caregivers to become experts in education, child care, mental health services, medical care and more — all while navigating and maintaining complicated and, at times, delicate family relationships.
Many caregivers struggle with depression, anxiety and even guilt about the circumstances that have led to their caregiving. If you are a relative who has stepped in to care for a child, you are not alone.
Here are some local resources and information that can support you in your caregiving journey.
Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine: Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine is a key resource for kinship families. AFFM provides support groups, training and education, mentorship, one-on-one assistance, clothing and household items, and much more. They have offices in Orono and Saco and can be reached at 1-800-833-9786. A list of support groups is available on their website, affm.net. AFFM have specially trained staff who can provide personalized assistance.
Families And Children Together: F.A.C.T. has developed a resource guide for grandfamilies. It can be accessed online or by calling 941-2347.
AAA Caregiver Support Program: As a caregiver, it is important that you get the support you need so you can provide the best care possible to your relative child. If you are over the age of 60 or have a disability, the local Area Agency on Aging can provide assistance to you as a caregiver through its Caregiver Support Program. If you live in the eastern Maine area, the Eastern Area Agency on Aging has a local program that can help caregivers like you find additional support. To contact the Caregiver Support Program, call Eastern Area Agency on Aging at 1-800-432-7812 or visit their website at eaaa.org.
Legal help: Grandfamilies often face legal hurdles in caring for their children. If you find yourself in need of low-cost legal assistance, there are options available locally. First, if you are over the age of 60, Legal Services for the Elderly can provide you with a consultation. Their legal helpline number is 1-800-750-5353.
Pine Tree Legal has a helpful online resource on guardianship. The organization also has an interactive online tool that will walk you through a set of questions and direct to you to information and assistance based on your legal needs. They may also be able to provide you with low-cost legal assistance for your family. Pine Tree Legal’s Bangor office number is 207-942-8241.
If you don’t quite know where to start, there is a great legal guide for grandfamilies with helpful tips and resources that has been developed by Families And Children Together. That guide can be accessed online or by calling F.A.C.T. at 207-941-2347.
Accessing MaineCare and TANF: Raising a child comes with new expenses and financial burdens. Programs such as MaineCare and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families may be able to ease the burden of these additional household expenses. Many caregivers are not aware that they can obtain MaineCare and TANF support for the child in care even if they themselves do not qualify for such assistance.
For additional assistance in obtaining benefits and more information about the process, contact Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine at 1-800-833-9786 or directly contact the MaineCare offices at 1-800-977-6740 or TANF at 207-624-4168. If the child’s parent is receiving a TANF benefit, that benefit will be modified if you receive child-only TANF.
Obtaining medical care: Obtaining medical care for your grandchild or other relative without a legal guardianship arrangement has been difficult for families in the past. A recent law in Maine is seeking to change that. Under this new law, if you can obtain a signed affidavit from the child’s parent stating the child is in your care, you can obtain medical care for that child. Contact Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine for further assistance at 1-800-833-9786.
Information on substance use disorders: If your family is affected by substance use disorders, connecting with reliable sources of information and assistance is important. The National Institute on Drug Abuse and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration provide free fact sheets as well as guidelines for talking with children about issues of mental health and substance use disorder.
Phoenix House has a great website that talks about some of the impacts that families face when dealing with substance abuse. Local resources include Wellspring at 207-941-1613, which provides not only treatment for substance use disorders but also services for affected family members. The National Alliance for Mental Illness, at 1-800-464-5767, sponsors family support groups as well as respite care for families of qualifying children under 18.
Self-care and respite: Grandfamilies experience all kinds of stress, and grandparents who suddenly assume the role of parent need to schedule in time for self-care and respite. Self-care for the caregiver is not “selfish” but practical. While you may recognize “taking a walk,” “eating healthy” and “getting enough sleep” as typical suggestions from concerned friends and family, there are three other modes of “self-care” that may, in fact, deliver just as much “relief”:
1. Use the team approach as you care for your child. Make a list of dozens of people — teachers, coaches, doctors, relatives, friends — and consider how each can assist you.
2. Use technology to coordinate this team. A useful app for scheduling help is Lotsa Helping Hands. Other apps like Grocery I.Q. and shared calendars can help you “farm out” weekly tasks. Dropbox and Google Drive are good for storage and retrieval of the increased paperwork. Mint and Quicken can track spending.
3. Celebrate your choice to raise your relative child. Take time to care for him or her out of love, not fear. Your decision is a powerful expression of your commitment to ensuring her healthy future.
Jennifer Crittenden is the assistant director at the University of Maine Center on Aging where she helps to develop and implement research, training and service initiatives that address Maine’s most pressing aging-related issues. Lisa Scofield is a graduate intern at the Center on Aging.