My mother was doing drugs, specifically cocaine, crack cocaine... I almost
died. They said that I was either going to be deaf or retarded or I wasn’t
going to survive past childhood or infancy because there were so many chemicals
in my system.
Theodds were stacked against Britiny Lee before she was born. Her mother was addictedto drugs, like Britiny’s grandfather and many others in their poverty-strickenCleveland neighborhood. Britiny’s mother used drugs throughout her pregnancyand went to prison for a year just after Britiny’s birth. As a poor, Black“crack baby” with an addicted, incarcerated mother and an absent father,Britiny started life in danger. Being born into an unstable poor family or to asingle, teen, incarcerated, or absent parent are all known risk factors in America’sCradle to Prison Pipeline crisis. The disadvantages millions of poor childrenand children of color face from birth along the continuum to and throughadulthood—which can include no orinadequate prenatal and health care; no or little quality early childhood educationand enrichment; child abuse and neglect; failing schools; grade retention,suspension, and expulsion; questionable special education placements; droppingout of school; unaddressed mental health problems; violent drug infested neighborhoods;and disproportionate involvement in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems—cumulateand converge and funnel so many poor children of color into a pipeline andtrajectory that too often leads to marginalized lives, imprisonment, and premature death. Entering the child welfaresystem would have been still another risk factor for baby Britiny but she waslucky.
That was where Britiny’s grandmotherstepped in who already had custody of Britiny’s older brother and sister. Shebrought Britiny home too and Britiny says, “My grandmother stepped up to theplate to raise us because she didn’t want us to go into the foster care system.”Britiny’s grandmother didn’t have a lot of money, but she was a stable sourceof love and support throughout childhood and Britiny flourished in her care. Despitedoctors’ concerns when she was born as a drug addicted child, Britiny was resilientand became a straight-A student who loved school from the beginning. Britiny’s grandmotherwas her rock even while struggling with the autoimmune disease lupus, which gotworse as Britiny got older. When she was 8 years old her grandmother suffered aseizure when they were home alone together and Britiny had to call 911 and ridein the ambulance with her grandmother to the hospital.
From then on she was terrified oflosing her grandmother. Britiny’s mother Felicia, who had come in and out ofher life throughout her childhood, was struggling towards sobriety. Nine monthsafter Felicia became sober, when Britiny was 10 years old, her grandmother died.Felicia remembers the moving moment: “[My mother] held my hand and she told me,‘Licia, I want to go home.’ And I thought that she meant go home, like put herin the car and take her home. No. She was saying she was tired and she wasready to go home to Glory... She looked at me in my eyes, and she said, ‘AndGod told me that you were ready, that you were ready to be a mom, that you’re goingto be a good mom, that you’re not going to use drugs anymore, and that I couldgo.’” Britiny’s mother was finally ready to step in, regain custody, and learnhow to be the parent her daughter needed and deserved. Today Britiny is a highschool senior about to graduate from Cleveland’s John Hay School of Science andMedicine and dreams of becoming a cardiac surgeon. She recently received a Beatthe Odds scholarship from Children’s Defense Fund-Ohio. She says of herbeloved grandmother, “She’s looking down on me. I’m sure she’s proud, and rightnow I just want to make her even more proud. I want to show her that she didn’tfight for me for nothing.”
Britiny’s grandmother was one of themany caregivers raising children in “kinshipcare” or “GrandFamilies”—headed by grandparents or other relatives who step inwhen parents are unable to do so. Sometimes a child is removed from parents’care by the state and placed with relatives in foster care; in other cases,children like Britiny are placed informally with relatives outside foster care. More than 6 million children arebeing raised in households headed by grandparents and other relatives. Of those6 million, 2.5 million children are living in households without their parentspresent. These relative caregivers like Britiny’s grandmother are willing tocare for the children, but often needfinancial or other help to appropriately meet their children’s needs.
Anumber of states have used subsidized guardianship programs to support kinshipfamilies and GrandFamilies. Kinship care has been found to help childrenmaintain family, and oftentimes community, connections. There is also strongevidence that children placed in kinship care experience greater stability,have fewer behavioral problems, and are just as safe—if not safer—than childrenin non-relative care. In Britiny’s case, all of these positive outcomes came topass, and after her grandmother “stepped up to the plate” a child who could easilyhave become a statistic is beating the odds and is a star with a bright future.