Colleen Sinclair thought her child-rearing days were over years ago when her daughter grew up, moved away and started her own family.
Instead, the Orcutt woman is among more than 2.5 million Americans, including more than 2,800 in Santa Barbara County, who are raising their grandchildren. They’re the full-time caregivers, nurturing souls and protectors of children whose birth parents, for whatever reason, no longer provide those traditional parenting duties.
“It’s a crisis situation. We’re all raising children that suffered early childhood trauma, abuse, abandonment,” Sinclair said.
Since 2007, Sinclair has served as the hub of kinship caregiver information as the founder and director of Kincares, a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to provide educational programs and services to meet the urgent and ongoing needs of grandfamilies and relative caregivers who have opened their hearts and homes to care for at-risk children.”
Kincares offers a kinship support group and pairs kinship families with resources, including help in guardianship formalities, medical insurance, cash assistance and education.
“We’re a kinship care navigator. We find out what their needs are and go after services. We’re a lot about collaborating with existing services,” Sinclair said.
Kincares works closely with the Jewish Community Center in Santa Barbara, American Charities Foundation in Santa Ynez and Hancock College’s Foster and Kinship Care Education Program.
“Kinship parents don’t generally like to be associated with the foster system. They feel like it doesn’t apply or it stigmatizes them, but the parenting classes we provide address the needs of any families in which children have been removed from their parents’ homes,” said Joe Pollon, director of the college’s program.
The program includes courses that promote communication, bonding and other general parenting skills as well as skill sets of particular interest to kinship parents.
“A lot of what we teach and talk about is grief and loss. It’s not a lot different from the feelings we have when we go through a breakup, divorce, death of someone. Eventually, if you get some help professionally or from family or other source of support and go through the grieving process, you go from focusing on the past and everything that went wrong to understanding the bigger, broader view of it. You take all that new knowledge and wisdom and start focusing on the future,” Pollon said.
Sinclair said she was one of the fortunate grandparents who received support when she worked through the Arizona system to take guardianship of her grandchild. There, Sinclair was required to become a foster parent to take over her kin’s care and was provided related social services including access to parenting training and counseling. She was assigned a court advocate, was provided a grandparent mentor and received other assistance that helped smooth the transition.
“The system here is entirely different. Once we crossed the California border, I lost that foster caregiver status and all the services that come with it,” Sinclair said.
In California, nearly 270,000 grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren’s everyday care. Still more aunts, uncles, cousins and close friends provide the care parents once did. Many of them operate outside the foster care system, receive no social services and often live in fear.
“I’ve got grandparents who are hiding out with their grandchildren because they’re afraid that if they come out of the woodwork, because of their age and fragility, that their grandchildren will be taken away from them. It’s a frightened population,” Sinclair said.
She added that while some grandparents do raise their children within the foster care system, most do not.
“We get no assistance, even though children captured by foster care agencies have stipends, clothing allowance, Court Appointed Special Advocates. They get all these community-based services because they’re in the system. Eighty percent of our group have guardianship, so they have no services,” Sinclair said.
That’s a particular issue for aging caregivers.
“We’re on fixed incomes. It’s hard to save up. We’re older, so we’ve found we can’t work full-time plus take care of a child with behavioral and emotional issues. It’s hard enough getting a job when you’re older, let alone getting a job when you’re an older mother. None of us say we have children when we’re looking for work. We’re afraid the minute we say we have children, it’ll be two strikes. It’s a little crazy,” Sinclair said.
Pollon added that many of the caregiving grandparents, like Sinclair, are doing the job entirely alone as single grandparents.
“They’re not only worried about their own health and retirement; they don’t have a partner to share it with. It is hard. They struggle,” he said.
Frightened grandparents coupled with children who feel stigmatized by their home situation make for rocky beginnings.
“If you’re a grandparent taking care of grandchildren, there’s a lot of guilt. ‘What did I do wrong with my kid that they can’t take care of their own?’ Being in foster care is tough, but taking care of a child in your own family has problems of its own. These are grandparents who are raising grandkids while also dealing with their own children’s drug problems, alcohol problems, emotional issues, so it can get very messy,” Pollon said.
Many of the children also have emotional issues directly related to early childhood abuse, neglect or the trauma of being removed from their homes, he added.
“The nature of children has them believing the world revolves around them, that good things happen because they’re good kids; bad things happen because they’ve done something bad. When their parents can’t take care of them, children feel shame. The grandparents feel it, too. People imply or even say, ‘You didn’t raise your own children properly. What business do you have raising your grandkids?’ It’s not an unreasonable question, but every parent knows even good parents have kids who go astray,” Pollon said.
Sinclair said it helps to know she’s not alone, and she sees the children’s spirits lifted when they find a community of other children raised in alternate situations.
Kincares is organizing a midcounty picnic gathering in coming months. In December, they met at the Discovery Museum, and last summer, they rented out the Lompoc Aquatic Center.
“We rented the whole place so the only people in the building were grandparents and the grandchildren they are raising. They were so relieved to meet other families. It was beautiful to see, especially to see the kids light up as they realized they really weren’t the only ones. There’s a lot of isolation because when you start raising a second family, your friends, even your long-term friends, don’t have anything in common with you anymore,” Sinclair said.
For more information about Kincares, visit Kincares.org.