By a Canadian kin caregiver
Our nieces came to live with us when they were three and five years old. Mom and Dad were using alcohol and drugs—selling drugs too—and they were arguing a lot. After the child protection system got involved, they moved out West. But within a year, my sister-in-law was putting the girls on a plane back to Ontario to move in with us.
The timing wasn’t ideal. I have lupus, and I had just got out of the hospital. But my husband was scared he wouldn’t have a relationship with our nieces if they were apprehended. And we loved the girls—we were especially close to the eldest, who had lived with my husband’s mother on and off in the past, when Mom wasn’t doing well.
The one and only bag the girls arrived with was a backpack of soiled clothes—no underwear, no socks. Our eldest niece has thick curly hair, and she had a head full of lice. She wasn’t able to start school for two months, because we had to deal with the lice—we didn’t want to shave her head, because she had already gone through so much trauma.
We have two boys, and they both gave up their beds for the girls, when they first moved in. My nieces were so excited just to have real beds. That and clean underwear and socks. It was heartbreaking.
My husband had been working full time, but he drastically reduced his hours for the next two years, to take care of the girls and me. Once my disability leave for the lupus was over, we realized I would also not be able to return to full-time work, even though I did not qualify for a paid parental leave. There was just so much work to be done getting the girls assimilated into a new family, new school, new everything. They had been neglected, witnessed domestic violence and possibly been abused. They showed many signs of being traumatized.
The eldest of my nieces always wanted to mother her sister. “I’ll go get my sister a bottle. I’ll change her diaper. You don’t have to, Auntie,” she would say. She had to learn how to be a kid and trust us as caregivers.
She was also hoarding food, because the girls had often gone without. And the three-year-old was only drinking—she had to learn how to eat solid foods. She was still in diapers too, and she couldn’t talk.
Once the girls started school, there were constant phone calls home and meetings with teachers: Our nieces had temper tantrums over seemingly small things, and the youngest would sleep all afternoon, during quiet time, because she was exhausted from waking up crying every night.
We had called Family and Children’s Services for help because we didn’t know what needed to be done because we knew there had been a file open when mom lived here with kids. However, because they were safe with us, there was nothing they could do to help. That meant we couldn’t access any subsidized programs, trauma counselling, or take any of the training offered to kinship families.
With therapy bills to pay, a larger family to feed, clothe, house and drive around, and my husband and I no longer able to work full-time, we ended up under a lot of financial stress. We often struggled to make our bills. We’ve had to move house five times in seven years.
For the past four years, we’ve been in and out of court trying to figure out a custody agreement. We couldn’t even get the girls a family doctor for the longest time, because we needed Mom’s signature, and she wasn’t communicating. Things are constantly being stalled, because the girls’ parents’ whereabouts keep changing. So much of our time goes into dealing with complicated situations like these.
It has been tough, but we have a really good and honest relationship with my nieces. The girls are gems. Now they can read; they can write; they’re in recreational programs. They’ve just come so far. Watching them growing up is phenomenal—I wouldn’t change our being a family for the world, and it’s good knowing they’re in a safe home.
I just wish, we had hadn’t had to go through such hardship to get them to this place. Kinship care can be incredibly complex. It would have made a world of difference to have a paid parental leave and better support in place. We would not have had to choose between setting the girls up to succeed and having the peace of mind that comes with financial stability.
The opinions expressed in blogs posted reflect their author and do not represent any official stance of Adopt4Life. We respect the diversity of opinions within the adoption, kinship and customary care community and hope that these blog posts will stimulate meaningful conversations.
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