Grandparent-Caregivers and The Mirabel Foundation – Podcast Episode 36

 

It is common for children who have been orphaned or abandoned due to parental drug use and related issues to be placed in the care of their grandparents. In circumstances where grandparent-caregivers have little financial and social support for such an undertaking, The Mirabel Foundation provides services to equip these family units with emotional and practical support. Nicholes Family Lawyers is joined by Elizabeth McCrea, who works in Advocacy and Family Support at the Mirabel Foundation. Elizabeth shares her insights into the issues these family units face and how we can rectify them in situations where parenting has been especially challenging.

 

Alastair:

Good morning and welcome to the Nicholes Family Lawyers Podcast series.  My name is Alastair Noakes and I am an Associate at Nicholes Family Lawyers. Today we will be looking at how COVID has affected less traditional family units such as those in which grandparents are responsible for the care of a child. We are fortunate today to be joined by Elizabeth McCrea who works in Advocacy and Family Support at the Mirabel Foundation.  This Foundation assists children who have been orphaned or abandoned due to drug use, supporting those aged from new-born to 17 years who are in the care of their extended family.

For those children who are devastatingly orphaned through parental drug use or related issues, they are usually placed in the kinship care of their elderly grandparents.  Oftentimes the grandparents have little and financial support.  Herein lies the great work that Mirabel conducts, in ensuring that these families are provided with emotional and practical support and working to provide these children with the most normal upbringing possible.

Whilst the COVID crisis has given rise to many difficulties in parenting and associated parenting arrangements, it has been especially isolating for grandparents who may have differing needs to traditional parents.  Thank you very much for joining us today, Elizabeth, to share your insights into the issues which such people may be facing and possible ways in which we can rectify these, in a situation where parenting has become otherwise especially difficult.

Elizabeth:

Thank you for inviting me

Alastair:

Could you give us some insight into what programs are usually conducted by the Mirabel Foundation that are aimed at assisting family units and how you have had to adapt these during COVID-19?

Elizabeth:

Well, our programs are generally arranged in two prongs, so we have the recreational program which is designed for children in age range from age 8 until when they turn 18, and then we have the family support side which focuses mainly on the carers and the younger children.  In normal times, we would obviously have face-to-face activities – with the recreational programs, we have various camps which are run throughout the year, especially during the school holidays; we would engage with the young teen group, to help this age-group to go through all the difficulties which teenagers have to go through; and then for the younger group – the 8 to 12 year-olds, we have separate boys and girls groups where they meet once a month, after school, and it is really an opportunity to make friends, because many have had very difficult early childhoods and they haven’t learnt those social skills.  So one of the main aims of these groups is to improve social skills, help them to create those friendships and build self-esteem.

We have separate boys and girls groups, because they have different ways of communicating – the girls groups will actually sit around doing an activity and talk but for boys, they are mainly sport-related in their communications.  Prior to COVID, they would go to fishing or indoor cricket, those sort of activities, and have a bit of a conversation about these.  It is also an opportunity where the children can meet positive role models through our staff – we do have quite a few male staff, which is wonderful, as well as female staff and we also have the assistance of volunteers, many of whom have been linked to Mirabel for 10 years, helping out on the camps and in other activities.

Then there is the family support side, so we do the Carer’s Support Group as well as phone counselling and advocacy and that could be going with them to a Child Protection meeting or going to court with them, and helping them along the way.

Alastair:

And we have worked together quite a few times in terms of that advocacy and everyone I have worked with cannot speak highly enough of Mirabel both in terms of support and the advocacy side of things.

Elizabeth:

It’s a wonderful organisation to work for!

Alastair:

In terms of the services that are offered, how have you found the impact of COVID?

Elizabeth:

Challenging, but we are very flexible.  I had never heard of Zoom before and now here we are constantly Zooming, left, right and centre! We had to adapt, so for instance the Carer Support Groups which we would normally run in various community centres around Melbourne as well as going out to the regions – Shepparton, Bendigo and Morwell.  We realised that we would have to change these to a Zoom variety of these support groups so over the month, we came up with the current situation where we have – Monday to Friday – what we call “meet-ups” between 11 am and 12, sometimes they go to 12.30 depending on how much we are chatting.  Anyone across the whole state can join in these Zoom groups and every Friday we sent out the Zoom link by email and as well we put it on our Carer Facebook.  So they can come in, just have a chat, talk about whatever difficulties or challenges they are having.  They are very supportive of each other, which is wonderful. We’ve also started an evening one which we call MAD (Mirabel After Dark). We start at 8 pm, when the kids are usually asleep or in front of TV, when the carers can actually get online and have a chat to each other.

So that is from the carer’s side; now the activities for the kids have had to be online, so we have “Big Day In” and “Big Day Out” which is what we used to do, where they had an activity. For instance, last week, during the school holidays, they had a magician!  We have had a magician connected to us for many years and there he was. There were about 30 faces watching the magician do his tricks – it was amazing. We also have the boys and girls groups, so we have been trying to run these.  As well, we have one-on-one peer support, so we are just trying to adapt from a face-to-face lifestyle and activity to one by Zoom.

Alastair:

Do you think that any of these services that you have had to implement due to COVID will be retained after COVID?

Elizabeth:

Yes I was going to include that, yes, specially for the remote people because we cover the whole state but only have the one office in St Kilda, and travel takes up such a long time, so to run those groups all the time, face-to-face, it can take a good day to get there and back and sometimes we have to stay overnight.  But this day we can do the activity on a video link and we will continue this. Mirabel After Dark will certainly be continuing.

Alastair:

Yes, the after-dark aspect would be great, purely because it is allowing carers who might be remote to have contact with other carers who might also be remote but on the opposite side of the state just to have the new opportunity to develop those networks, get those suggestions about what works and what doesn’t work; that would be invaluable.

Elizabeth:

At the beginning, I ask: “So where are you from?” And they might be from Bairnsdale or Colac, it is just remarkable and wonderful!

Alastair:

The joys of technology! What additional difficulties do you believe grandparents might be facing at this time, that more traditional parents and family units would not be experiencing?

Elizabeth:

Right from the beginning, during the Meet-Ups when we were speaking with the carers, what they were finding very challenging was that the press kept talking about the over-60s in particular, high risk, concern, lots of health worries, and other worries, a constant barrage in which they were being told that they were a critical group –

Alastair:

A high-risk category

Elizabeth:

Absolutely and the kids were going to school and also had to have access with parents and as many a grandparent said to us: “I’m sure they won’t be washing their hands and keeping a social distance and all those provisions, in their own lifestyle”.

Alastair:

It is not a lifestyle which lends itself to isolation.

Elizabeth:

No, absolutely.  So that was a huge worry for them.  The other concern that came through from both the carers and the children was if you remember, at the beginning, when there was that rush on groceries and toilet-paper (and you need to keep in mind that many of these children have had very difficult early lives and often have not had food at regular times) the whole idea of hoarding brings back the trauma of what they have already experienced.  So they were very worried that they wouldn’t be able to eat, because the food would not be on the shelves and the grandparents won’t be able to go out and buy food, because they are the category of the population that was most highly at risk. So that was a big fear.

So we linked up with other organisations who were donating food, and we were actually delivering food to people’s homes, during the earlier months, so they actually had a little hamper on their front door step, and that helped them. There was in fact a true fear of the children that there would not be any food and they would have to go hungry again.

Alastair:

That was probably a scenario that none of us anticipated in a country such as Australia where there would be lines outside of supermarkets and if you couldn’t get to the supermarket by midday then your were faced with the possibility that items would be running out.

Elizabeth:

Yes and I know that there was that special time early in the morning when the over-60s could go and do their grocery shopping, but if you think of the household and of getting kids ready for school, specially if you are a single grandmother looking after 3 or 4 grandchildren, you can’t just be popping out getting groceries when also trying to chase kids around to eat their breakfast and get ready for school.

Alastair:

And we would agree that these are the children who really need that routine as much as possible and need that promoted to have a sense of stability and have that up-ended by somebody going out to the shops at a very early hour, it was not really conducive to what needed to happen.

Elizabeth:

Then there was home schooling and remote schooling which was a technological challenge for the over-60s who don’t have a lot of technology or devices at home or up-to-date ones, so whatever programs the schools were running on, their equipment didn’t work properly, so there were lots of challenges as far as technology was concerned.  And then there was the whole: “Am I the teacher?” so what they were faced with, suddenly having to become the teacher at home and they are just not used to dealing with the technology and they are also trying to help their grandchild/children go through the lesson plan that were coming through from the school.  I remember one carer whose grandson was in Grade 4, and I think the subject was Maths, and there she was at the end of one of our Meet-Up groups and she was in tears because she didn’t understand the Maths questions so couldn’t explain them to him.  This little boy is probably on the spectrum so he has his own challenges in understanding so there she was, not only caring for him day-to-day, but also in having to become a teacher.  Faced with the fact that she couldn’t understand the technology and also realising that school has changed – two generations is a big jump in how schooling and the whole education system works.  So she had gone into a deep level of depression as she couldn’t do what she believed she should do. That was across quite a lot of families that we know.

Alastair:

I imagine that it wouldn’t be helpful that school time or even the programs that Mirabel run, give grandparents the opportunity of a little bit of respite, and suddenly having to be on 24/7 as well as being available for assistance but to be actively running some of these schooling programs, encouraging involvement in these programs.  It is an additional toll that just wouldn’t have been anticipated at the time they put their hand up and said “Yes, I am in a position to help my grandkids and I’m happy to help out and more than comfortable to help out, as well”.  Then all of a sudden it is being dialled up to eleven ….

Elizabeth:

It was interesting to see from the first lockdown, when they were so stressed by having to do all that, (and I’ll get onto access visits in a second) then the second lockdown where they had got to the point of saying “I’m not a teacher, so the school cannot expect me to do all of this”, they were much more savvy with the technology and they were more inclined to call the teacher and get them to help out.

Alastair:

Yes, and that needed to happen, that bit of a push-back to say: “your job is to help me, I need assistance, I can’t be expected to be a carer and a parent and a teacher”.

Elizabeth:

Yes, and one grandmother said the other day that she has now realised that keeping the place tidy and clean is just not on anymore!  She was quite proud of herself that she had got to that point.  The other aspect of all of this is access visits.  So if Child Protection was involved and in the past, say the access visits were supervised by the Department, so they would come and pick up the children to meet up with parents, suddenly that wasn’t happening and the carers realised that they had to do this remotely, “so we will need you to do it”. So if you think of the mindset of dealing with a person that they don’t really want to have contact with, there might have been threats againt their lives in the past, or they might have IVOs against them, and then suddenly, via Skype, you have to invite them into your home, and run access visits; one grandmother who has a lot of arthritis throughout her body and she’s got her 18-month-old grandson, who moves around a lot, so there she is, with the IPad, trying to chase him around the house, to be able to say that yes, the access visit with one of the parents has actually happened.

Alastair:

A lot of the grandparents that we work with really experience that difficulty, specially with younger children who aren’t interested in interacting with anyone over a screen, whether it be a parent or Santa, they see a screen, they have a short attention span, they move onto something that they can physically do.  We had some grandparents who were really feeling the pressure from the parents to say: Well it is your responsibility to make sure they interact, and they felt really torn being placed in that position.

Elizabeth:

Yes, it is such a high expectation for one person to be doing all of this: caring, teaching, access arrangements, as well as advocating on behalf of their grandchildren with both the Department and with Court, it is too much for one person. With one grandmother, the worker actually comes out to the house with the phone because dad is in prison, you know the whole system with the phone-calls, so the 5 year old sits there and has the occasional word – it is a very difficult situation and this is a phone-call, not even a video call, and grandma is there trying to give the 5-year-old something like colouring, “tell your dad what you are drawing” – trying to prompt some conversation, it is very difficult.

Alastair:

Obviously everyone has had a difficulty trying to explain to young children what is happening and why it is happening and why these new systems are in place, did Mirabel speak to grandparents about the best ways to address these concerns with children or talk to them about what is now expected of them and their carers and their parents?

Elizabeth:

We tried to share with the carers whatever was coming out from the various organisations  – DHHS provided quite good information to help them have that conversation.  With the teens, Mirabel staff just talked through the impact on them. The general attitude of both older and younger ones is that they miss their friends, they miss the face-to-face time or chat, or being able to do whatever activities, say kick the ball around, they are just tired of it, it is just boring being stuck at home with grandma.

Alastair:

Their frustration is relatable, we can all agree.

Elizabeth:

The carers feel isolated, they love coming on to these groups that we are running, they say it is their lifeline.  It is nice to see adults talking to adults rather than doing schooling with the kids or trying to get the older ones to actually do their schooling.

Alastair:

The support of extended family, maybe not the parents of the children but any other children that the grandparents might have had would have been available to able to assist as well,  and suddenly that is not available.

Elizabeth:

There is one single grandmother who said that her sister lived 13 kilometres away and she was her support.

Alastair:

What about in terms of the pressures or the negative impacts that have become apparent for the children?  We have spoken about the difficulties which grandparents are having, feeling isolated, feeling more pressure to engage in schooling and to facilitate visits and the impact that these can have on them, has it become clearer about the negative impacts on children as well?

Elizabeth:

Yes, they are going inside themselves more.  I was asking one of our workers who does a lot of one-on-one with the young teens and he was saying that he had one young lad who usually talked non-stop and as the time has gone by, he has become more and more insular, and certainly not that happy chatty person that he was before.  We’ve tried hard to get him back to school so he can have the face-to-face contact because he was getting to a bad space, from a mental health point-of-view.

Alastair:

Children who have experienced that early life trauma do thrive with these social connections with their peers.

Elizabeth:

Yes many of them feel very isolated just in normal times; they feel isolated because they think they are the only kid who doesn’t live with their parents, living with their grandma or auntie or uncle or whoever, and they are the only ones in this situation so the wonderful thing of coming together in Mirabel activities is that they meet others who are in the same situation, so they feel the connection there.  Some of our people who have been part of Mirabel for many years – we’ve been going for 20 years now – they are all young people and now we have an Ambassador’s Group too, young 20s nearly 30, some of them, who we were having get-togethers with and there are still friendships there which were formed in a camp when they were 8,9 or 10, and over all these years they have stayed in contact with each other.

Alastair:

That’s beautiful, and it’s certainly something that I imagine you would want to bring back once restrictions are lifted as soon as it is safe to do so –so that the current children who are experiencing this extended emphasised isolation can really work towards having those relationships going forward.

Elizabeth:

An interesting experience for one carer who from a technology point of view was called to give evidence at a hearing, so she had to log onto Webex, she was advised that the court date was this date and it was going to happen but no one told her how to register or to log on to Webex and she rang us and one of our staff rang the Child Protection worker, and said     how can you expect a person to give evidence when no one has told her how to get onto the system

Alastair:

We’ve seen something of this. Obviously the policies and procedures which have been implemented by the Children’s Court as a necessity during COVID which have necessitated significant adjournments during hearings and further delays required in getting through cases, I’ve seen the impact that some grandparents have experienced in terms of the frustration of this situation in matters which might otherwise have been drawing to a close, and being able to provide some stability for the children and are now finding things extended for a further 4, 6 or 8 months in situations where no resolutions have been reached, and things are still up in the air.

Elizabeth:

One grandmother with whom I’ve been doing a lot of work, the one with the 5-year-old,  with the contact dad via a phone, she has been with grandma for 5 years so not able to get a permanent placement within the 2 year period.  It was all set up in February, the magistrate said yes, all the permanent care assessment needs to be done before the next court date in May, then it stopped. The grandmother couldn’t understand why if everyone else was doing things remotely, you can have a conversation and do such assessments, so why isn’t this happening?

Alastair:

Unfortunately this is not a uniform position that I have seen across all the different Child Protection divisions; some people are saying, well it makes sense, we do not need to do a new assessment, we have been to your house before, and a lot of these assessments we can do over the phone or via Zoom whereas I have unfortunately seen some officers who say: we cannot come out to your house so there is no point in doing any of this assessment at all, until these restrictions are lifted.  Without a uniform approach, this will prove frustrating for people.

Elizabeth:

Yes, that is something…. we cover the whole state, like yourself, we get to hear about all the variations of what are the procedures and protocols so it is indeed frustrating when one carer will get everything done really quickly, because they live in a certain area and that office is out there and they are ready to use the technology and get it all going, whereas the one over there…..

Alastair:

Not so much. What advice would you give to grandparents who might be finding it difficult to maintain their obligations whilst keeping children during lockdown?

Elizabeth:

The carers are living the situation: first of all, they are not teachers, so use contacts with teachers to make sure the teacher is helping the child; if it is an access arrangement with which they are really struggling, go back to the Child Protection worker to try to negotiate a more workable situation; or contact us, we do a lot of advocacy using emails and the DHHS Complaints unit to help the carers and the kids to receive what they are entitled to, and to receive support and help, particularly in this situation.  They cannot be everything to everyone; the whole idea is to try to help them to get the kids out to play; some of the carers are saying that if the kids are not up to doing school that day, we will just go out to the garden or go to the park and kick the footy around, do something active and then maybe later in the day the kids might be able to get back to whatever they are meant to be doing with schooling. But you can only do what you can do.

Alastair:

And it is important not to put expectations on yourself which are going to compromise your own mental health as well.

Elizabeth:

We can really see an improvement in that perspective by the carers.  At the beginning they were very stressed by the whole thing and also afraid of their own health, and the children were actually saying: “we don’t want you to go outside, Grandma, because you might get COVID and then you will die and then who will look after us?”  That’s the reality which some of these kids face all the time, as they watch their grandparents getting older. They wonder who will look after them if their grandparent dies.

Alastair:

For children who have experienced trauma like these children have, that is just an extra emotional burden which they are having to deal with as well.

Elizabeth:

Yes, and the carers then take on that burden as well, so the whole family unit is fearful, much more so than in normal circumstances but it is something that they live with.

Alastair:

You have touched on it already, but my advice for any grandparents who are experiencing difficulty, who are not linked with Mirabel, should make sure they do link themselves with Mirabel because it is an amazing service, seeing the families that you have worked with, seeing the support that grandparents have received, who might not have known about your service and who felt very isolated and felt that they had no supports out there other than with their immediate social network, who just have been introduced to the world of Mirabel and everything you can offer. I’ve worked with families like that and have seen an immediate change in alleviating their stress and knowing that there is someone else out there who they can look to or seek support from, or be advocated for – it is an invaluable service.

Elizabeth:

Prior to working in Mirabel, I worked in Child Protection in New South Wales and when I changed over, it was such a relief to work for an organisation which not only has the wonderful activities, the programs, the philosophy that every child deserves a childhood, but also that to support the children we need to support the carers. 15 years ago that was not something that we were aware of or was really thought about by the various organisations, and Mirabel has – the way I describe it is we have a big heart and long arms.

Alastair:

So good to finish on such a positive note.  So I want to thank you, Elizabeth, for being a part of this instalment of the Nicholes Family Lawyers podcast series. Anyone who might be listening and who thinks that Mirabel would provide the support they need, we will provide Mirabel’s contact details in the description of this podcast.  Thank you, Elizabeth.

Elizabeth:

Thank you also.

 

Disclaimer: Nicholes Family Lawyers intends the information provided in this podcast as general information only, please contact Nicholes Family lawyers if you require specific information and advise in relation to any family law matter.

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