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When Parents are Absent
Posted on October 13, 2019, by GAPMP
By Jane Grillo
Over the last few years I have noticed more and more non parents attending district trainings, IEP meetings and school events. These are family members who for, any number of reasons, find themselves raising a child or children. In White County we have identified about 10 % of our student population (gen ed and student services recipients) are in the care of grandparents, adoptive or foster parents.
Raising a child with a disability is daunting enough when a parent first hears a diagnosis, and then a prognosis. When the child goes to school, you are coached on Parent Rights etc., as you learn to participate in an IEP team and advocate for your child.
When the child comes to you through a court order, or because you have elected to take over custody, there is little time to learn about services and supports. Often, the family member has little to no experience with disability or special education services. I have had many heart-wrenching conversations with a family member struggling to take in the alphabet soup of the education system and state services systems. These sudden life changing situations are typically not smooth transitions, and parent mentors understand firsthand the importance of planning and understanding services and supports families need for transitional times in a child’s life, whether it is a school related placement, change in living arrangements or a change in services. My goal was to be a gentle guide and resource for these families.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 school year, I began working in partnership with school staff, White County Family Connections Collaborative and other local organizations and support groups to serve and identify the non parental guardians in our district. Our initiative is called the GROW (Guardians Raising Our Warriors) Academy. In collaboration with our Family Connections Family Advocate we have begun attending school events with a table full of old timey things to promote our group and give people a chance to get to know us with a little bit of fun mixed in. The game is called, “What is this thing?” People are invited to come to our table and guess the use of the objects on the table. While they are there, we talk about our group and recruit families for future trainings and events.
Family Engagement Standard 1: Welcoming – By offering information about GROW at school events, families can meet us and ask questions in a family friendly setting We were also careful to replace the term “parent” with “family”
There is research identifying the needs of these types of families. AARP has statistical information by state, the pages are called the Grandfamilies Guide.
You can also download a statistics sheet for the state of Georgia
At one of our meetings with the local Kinship Care chapter (which is a support organization for grandparents raising grandchildren,) we wrote the numbers from the Grandfact sheets on big posters and hung them up on the walls all around the meeting room to help the families see not only that they were not alone, but also to help them understand the financial impact raising children was having on them (especially since most of them admitted they were dipping into retirement savings and/or going back to work to support their grandchildren) and, they also learned about how much money they were saving the state by taking on the financial burden and keeping the kids out of foster care.
Family Engagement Standards 2: Communicating Effectively & 6: Collaborating with the Community By offering the families resources and research based information, we were able to help families understand the purpose and scope of our GROW group and… by visiting other related community groups we could help those families feel like there was a bigger community of supports and services to explore and investigate
At one of the meetings, we trained GROW members on the school district online resources available to them through Infinite Campus and SLDS (State Longitudinal Data System) which both offer family resources. Although some of the families were reluctant to use online data tracking, by going slowly and step by step through the process, even if they weren’t ready right then to login… they left with knowledge they didn’t have before.
Family Engagement Standard 3: Supporting Student Success By offering information and support about the online data tracking families could see how they could keep track of student grades and testing data. This is a level of involvement that directly relates to a student’s academic progress.
These families were eager to share their stories and frustrations with having limited ability to act as guardians and their experiences with navigating court and social services programs. My GROW organizing partner and I learned from the families about how court systems work and guardianship from another perspective (not just transitioning to adult services, but what happens when custody of a child shifts from the biological parents to another family member or adult caregiver). We learned about Ga Codes which provide for changes in guardianship and placement.
Family Engagement Standard 4: Speaking Up for Every Child – hearing the stories of the families who sought to extricate a child or children from a house where they were neglected, abused or living in dangerous situations helped us understand the advocacy and impact the guardians had in the lives of these White County students.
Our numbers are small right now and because many of the families who have attended GROW events do not have a child who receives special education services, I am reluctant to create a target group for my parent mentor initiative this school year, but, as parent mentors, in our extensive contact and relationship building with families and school staff we are often trendspotters in our districts. This is about engaging these families and creating school, family and community partnerships around the needs of these families .
Family Engagement Standard 5: Sharing Power By creating awareness in the community about the needs and supports that families who are taking on parenting a child or children as guardians, we can create wider circles of support for the families and hopefully, see better outcomes by training these caregivers in the same family engagement tenets that we teach parents.
Other categories of non parents:
Surrogates… The Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice offers a training program for Surrogate Parents. Surrogates are appointed to act in the interest of a student who receives special education services who does not have a parent and they serve as part of the IEP team to help plan the child’s educational services.
This is different from a guardian or adoptive parent. Foster parents can serve in the role as a surrogate parent. Department of Juvenile Justice Parent Mentor Doricia Thompson has served as a surrogate and also assists people who are interested in becoming trained to serve as surrogates.