Support Group Helps Kin Caregivers in Berrien County Feel Less Alone

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Auston and Michelle Simpson with their grandsons, Asher and Keagan, celebrating Keagan’s 8th birthday.

by Diana St. Lifer

Once a month Michelle Simpson looks forward to the short ride from her home in Cook County to neighboring Berrien County where she spends a few hours with other caregivers who can relate to her experiences raising her two grandsons. Simpson and her husband, Auston, are legal guardians to Keagan, 8, and Asher, 6. While Simpson participates in the Kinship Caregiver Support Group, the boys enjoy time with other children who are being raised by a grandparent or other relative.

“The kids love going to the support group meetings,” Simpson said. “They can’t wait for that day to come every month.” For Simpson, who has raised her grandsons since they each were 2 years old, it’s a time to connect with other kin caregivers, acquire skills and strategies, and learn more about resources and services. “When I heard there was a support group for grandparents, I thought, that’s what I need because I’m at a different stage in life than other parents raising young children.”

According to the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services (DFCS), 55% of children in Berrien County in protective custody are placed with relatives. Kinship care has been on the rise in Georgia with more than 101,000 children in kinship care, according to the latest KIDS COUNT data.

Berrien is one of nine counties that has been part of Georgia Family Connection’s Kin Caregiver Support Cohort since 2019. Family Connection/Communities in Schools of Berrien County received $5,000 in grant funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to address service gaps through direct services to kin caregiving families.

The Berrien County Collaborative’s Kinship Support Services Program provides critical case management, family navigation, caregiver support groups, children’s activity groups, respite care, educational workshops, and more. An advocacy team also works to advance equity and justice for kinship families, ensuring that they have the services, assistance, and tools they need to thrive.

Asher catches a fish with his grandfather.

The support group has grown from three families to 10 in three years, which means up to 26 children gather while their guardians meet. Sara Paulk, the Collaborative’s executive director, said one 70-year-old grandmother is raising six grandchildren in addition to her adult son with Down syndrome.

“We know child care is a huge barrier that would keep families from participating,” said Paulk. “We wanted to offer an opportunity where guardians can bring their children and know they’ll be cared for.”

Families enjoy a meal donated from within the community or prepared by the Collaborative, and the group celebrates birthdays each month. Participants stay connected through a private Facebook page that features resources, information, and messages of encouragement.

“Our volunteers will tell you they’re blessed by these kids,” said Evelyn Fox, the Collaborative’s community coordinator. “The children know these adults genuinely care about them and want the best for them.”

Fox, who oversees the support group, coordinates guest speakers and discussion topics. September’s program addressed suicide prevention and issues related to social media. Another meeting focused on raising children with autism, which was helpful to Simpson and other caregivers with children on the spectrum. Raising children with special needs presents even greater challenges to kin caregivers, so Fox aims to start a group to support this specific population of guardians.

“When grandparents are the primary caregivers, support is often hard to find, particularly when the children are young and with special needs,” said Simpson. “What we need most is someone who can watch the kids so we can have a break.”

Family Connection provided some relief for kin caregivers by sponsoring a respite day in July, when guardians dropped off children for a full day of activities and games. “The guardians were thrilled and want to know when we can do it again,” Fox said. “For many, this is the only break they get.”

Keagan and Asher are ready for the first day of school.

Beyond that, local partner agencies provide donations and financial assistance. The Haven, a nonprofit that provides emergency temporary shelter to victims of family violence and sexual assault, addressed another need by filling 40 backpacks with school supplies to distribute to kin caregivers. Individual community members also have gotten involved. Two volunteers gave families a Food Lion gift card along with this message:

“Each of us have people we consider heroes. For some, that hero is a soldier, firefighter, police officer, or doctor. For others, it’s a single mom, hard-working dad, or other everyday people. What makes someone a hero? It’s someone who sacrifices for the well-being of others. They put the needs of others above their own wants and desires. Heroes are determined, courageous, and brave. You are our hero, changing the lives of these children for good and forever. Thank you for all your hard work and sacrifice.”

Fox said people sometimes people want to do a little something special for the group. “Our families appreciated the gift card, but the letter spoke volumes and went straight to their hearts.”

Lanier and Brantley counties are developing similar kinship caregiver support groups, and Brantley is part of Family Connection’s Kin Caregiver Support Cohort. Cox and her team have offered to assist other counties in getting support groups up and running.

“Kinship care benefits children to be able to stay with a family member, minimizing trauma and providing permanency and stability,” said Fox. “While there are barriers for a kinship caregiver, efforts are being made to create a better system for families who find themselves in this situation. Having a good support system to help the kinship caregivers navigate the system is one way we can help.”

Georgia Family Connection Partnership selected Berrien to participate in the next phase of the Kin Caregiver Cohort, which begins this month. Part of this grant funding may be used to provide transportation for families to meetings held in Nashville, Berrien’s county seat.

Sharon Paris, kinship navigator for the Berrien County DFCS Kinship Navigator Program, also is working with Family Connection to start a support group that meets during the day.

“A support group is so beneficial to these families,” said Paris. “To sit around the table knowing the person across from you is going through the same experience—it makes the caregivers realize they’re not alone.”

Contact:
Krystin Dean
GaFCP Communications Specialist
404-739-0043
krystin@gafcp.org

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Georgia Family Connection Partnership (GaFCP) is a public-private partnership created by the State of Georgia and investors from the private sector to assist communities in addressing the serious challenges facing children and families. GaFCP also serves as a resource to state agencies across Georgia that work to improve the conditions of children and families. Georgia KIDS COUNT provides policymakers and citizens with current data they need to make informed decisions regarding priorities, services, and resources that impact Georgia’s children, youth, families, and communities.