Oregon Kinship Navigator Program helps those parenting their relatives’ children
STATEWIDE – When Terry Santini started parenting her two-year old granddaughter in 2016, there weren’t many resources available. It had been 20 years since she had raised a child, and she needed some help on more than a few things.
“I was trying to navigate through all the calls I needed to make while working full-time, so I was using my break times and time right after I got off work, while also going home to a two-year-old who needed my attention. There were some financial challenges too with trying to find affordable, reliable daycare. When you haven’t had to place a child in daycare for over 20 years, you don’t realize the increase of the cost,” said Santini, who lives in Albany.
Suddenly, she went from only having to support herself to taking care of a two-year-old child.
“That’s a lot of refreshing the memory with packing a diaper bag, potty training, and being responsible for a young child 24/7. Then there were also those sleepless nights staying up with a sick child,” she said.
Santini was doing what is most encouraged by the Oregon Department of Human Services (ODHS) and many experts in child-rearing: kinship care. She took over the raising of her granddaughter when her own child was struggling with parenting. Kinship care refers to caregiver grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, adult siblings and even family friends. Having kinship providers allows children to stay with people they know, which helps maintain their sense of belonging and allows them to keep in touch with their family’s culture and traditions. Nationally, more than 2.7 million children live with non-parent relatives.
In Oregon, there are about 2,787 children in the care of kinship foster parents through ODHS, and another 36,000 who are raised by relatives but are not in ODHS foster care.
Now, there are resources available to kinship caregivers through the Oregon Kinship Navigator statewide program. It was created by Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc. (GOBHI), with help from an Oregon Department of Human Services grant. The program helps grandparents and other relative caregivers find answers to their questions and discover resources to support them in raising the child.
The program offers opportunities for peer-to-peer connection through its Facebook page and online support groups. Resources include: childcare, counseling, food assistance, mediation, multicultural services, clothing and help with utilities. It also aids in navigating state agencies, including the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare program, the Supplemental Nutrition Program (SNAP), Oregon Health Plan, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
In August, the Oregon Kinship Navigator Facebook page reached more 7,000 individuals. The private, online support groups for grandparents and family members raising family members’ children have more than 150 users. The use of the Navigator website has grown 449% since its launch in January. And now, Santini works as the Kinship Family Navigator Specialist.
“I’m very passionate about this opportunity to assist and support grandparents and family members. I network with other agencies so we can provide wraparound services for the families,” she said.
Most people learn about the Oregon Kinship Navigator program through their website, word of mouth, Facebook groups, or brochures or flyers. Santini helps people find resources and then follows up with them to see if there are further needs. Every county has different requirements for kinship parenting; she helps them navigate that. One of the biggest needs is for legal help, which is not affordable for many people.
The Oregon Kinship Navigator program also partners with the KEEP for Kin program. KEEP for Kin provides peer support groups for grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and others who are caring for related youth and children and is for families not involved with ODHS. The Oregon Legislature made a commitment to support foster and kinship families by making KEEP groups available across the state.
Santini knows what the people coming to Oregon Kinship Navigator program are going through.
“Everyone’s story is different. What is the same is that we are all family members raising children. Usually it was not a good situation that got us here. For some, you are grieving for your child that is still alive. Chances are you have probably lost that connection with your child. It’s hard,” she said.
But with all the challenges, there are great rewards.
“The rewards are endless to say the least. Watching my grandchild grow into her own little person, attitude and all. Getting to witness her starting school and learning to write and read, then seeing her light up showing me all the work she completed at school. Watching her explore the world and learn about her surroundings,” Santini said. “She has such a warm heart and her love has no conditions or judgements. Those moments you question yourself on how much more can you go through…and then she wraps her arms around you and tells you how much she loves you, and you know you can take on the world.”
As Santini thinks about Kinship Care Month, there is a message she would like people to think about: “I would like us, as a society, to look at grandparents raising grandkids and look at financial restrictions we face and to help provide some financial assistance. If the purpose is to get more relatives to take in kids, the message has been – for those not in ODHS custody – you’re on your own. We need resources. We need to work to change this.”
Learn more about the Oregon Kinship Navigator program.