When parents are unable, unwilling, or unavailable to care for their children, what happens to the kids? Most of the time, a relative steps up to the plate and assumes responsibility. The complex interwoven systems – legal, medical, educational- are already difficult to navigate with your own children, but try it as a relative caregiver. Most grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins, who unexpectedly end up caring for relative children, have to blindly feel their way through these systems running into dead ends and making u-turns. However, Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter Counties are privy to a unique program that relieves the stress of relatives caring for relative children and guides them through the systemic structures, Kids Central’s Kinship Program.
It’s heartbreaking to care for a terminally ill sibling and his daughters. Tragically, Shane had to do so. For around two years, Shane acted as caregiver to his elder brother, Stan, while he suffered the effects of heart disease. Stan wasn’t expected to pass suddenly, but that’s exactly what happened, leaving Shane with his grief and twin nieces, Tyler and Taylor. His brother’s family had been living with him for two years, so the girls were close to Shane and accustomed to being with him. Shane wasn’t sure what to do or how to legally take care of the girls. He didn’t know where their mother was or how to find her. Grief and confusion made an already difficult situation worse. While visiting the local Social Security office, Shane was referred to the Kinship Program with Kids Central.
“It was the best phone call I made,” Shane references calling the Kinship Program. After making the call, he met Melissa Casto, Kinship Case Manager, who promptly came to the house and listened to the family’s story. At that first meeting, she gave him a “to do” list, including how to enroll the girls in Medicaid, apply for other assistance, open a court case, and gain temporary custody. Furthermore, Melissa helped him enroll Tyler and Taylor in school and discontinue their home school program. “I wouldn’t have known any of this without Melissa’s help,” stated Shane. Less than two weeks after opening the court case, Shane received a court date and gained temporary custody of the girls. He was excited and relieved.
Having a Kinship Case Manager that was knowledgeable, reliable and caring made all the difference to Shane. “Melissa has been a blessing. She went to court with me and genuinely cares, which is very important,” he shared. After only meeting Melissa three days earlier, Shane found himself at the courthouse struggling to get the proper paperwork. He made a quick call to her, and she dropped everything to head down there to help. Once arriving, the staff supervisor Shane had been speaking with took one look at Melissa and knew what Shane needed.
“Imagine having children dropped at your doorstep, or a traumatic family event happen, and you are suddenly faced with raising your relative children. Now imagine not having the tools or advocacy skills to do that very task, and you have children that are in need of education, medical and dental treatment, and mental health services- but you do not have the resources, legal status or know-how in order to access these services for the kids,” explains Melissa Casto. She continues, “This happens every day, and these relative caregivers are left feeling powerless and voiceless, often scrambling through unknown and unfamiliar social systems to try and get help.”
As part of the Kinship Program, Shane attended support groups. During each meeting, he learned how to handle various scenarios and situations. He also found comfort in learning that others were going through similar situations. “Listening to similar stories makes you feel like you’re not the only one,” he explained.
Shane describes Tyler and Taylor a “regular girls”. They are 12 years old. After a recent relocation, the girls have become friends with a neighbor girl and enjoy playing often. They ride bikes, play with dolls and use a computer tablet for fun. In their new home, they’ve been working on personalizing their new rooms.
Kids Central’s Kinship Program is a unique program available to relative caregivers caring for relative children in Citrus, Hernando, Lake, Marion and Sumter Counties. The program assists caregivers with case management, legal guidance, support and other assistance. The Kinship Program was designed and developed with the Kinship caregiver in mind, as well as safety and preservation of the family unit. When relatives continue to care for children in need, cultural heritage is promoted and the child’s environmental continuity is ensured. Each family is assigned a Kinship Case Manager who gets to know the family and its story. Furthermore, the families attend the Kinship Support Groups. For more information, call Michelle Mongeluzzo at 352-387-3439.