By Kaitlin Louie
About Karamoko Andrews, LMSW: Mr. Andrews has over ten years of experience in child welfare social work, and has taken on numerous leadership roles within this field, including Foster Care Director at New York Foundling and Child Protective Services Supervisor for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services/Dept. of Children and Families. He is currently a Public Health Social Work Consultant with the New York City Human Resources Administration’s Department of Social Services.
Mr. Andrews earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Rehabilitation Services from the University of Maryland Eastern Shore in 2001, and his Master of Social Work Degree from Fordham University in 2008.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you please provide a definition of parentification, and in what scenarios this phenomenon typically occurs? What are the causes and the short and long term effects of parentification?
[Karamoko Andrews, LMSW] I believe that the best way to describe the issue of parentification and how it can impact the family unit, as well as the community, is through an anecdote. The following is a story that is representative of many of the cases I encountered during my time as a child welfare social worker, supervisor, and director. I have changed names where necessary to protect confidentiality.
Antonio knows his and his two siblings’ routine. On school days, he wakes up himself and his younger brothers, and pulls their school uniforms from the dresser drawer or the hamper. Antonio feeds them a bowl of cereal and then walks with the boys to their elementary school, about a half mile from their home. In the afternoon, he and his brothers return home. Antonio makes sure his brothers complete their homework and then he feeds them dinner. This cycle was repeated for an undetermined amount of time–that was until a referral to the state child welfare agency was made by Antonio’s 6th-grade teacher. The teacher noted in the referral that Antonio consistently sleeps in class, there were hygiene concerns, and multiple letters and telephone calls to the home that were left unanswered. His teacher also stated that Antonio was failing and it wasn’t due to his inability to perform at his grade level, but that he had so much difficulty staying awake in the classroom.
There are many children like Antonio whose childhood is sacrificed or preempted, as they assume adult roles prematurely, either by default or proxy. Often times, children don’t have the developmental maturity usually possessed by adults and lack the knowledge and sophistication to troubleshoot and navigate complex issues. Parentification is truly an intricate phenomenon that requires responses by the community-at-large to intervene when necessary and support the positive growth of tomorrow’s leaders. The child welfare professional is specifically charged with identifying the existence of these behaviors and making thoughtful considerations in the event foster placement is needed. All children are entitled to a stable and nurturing environment and supporting an environment which provides the opportunity for a child to not undertake adult roles, is a charge not only for social service workers, but also for individual communities and all professionals interacting with a child.
Responding to the referral, I met with Antonio in the guidance counselor’s office. He was visibly skeptical about our conversation, but the ice was broken when the subject of professional wrestling came up. He spoke of his favorite wrestlers and how he wanted to be a wrestler when he got older. When conversation evolved to his family life and structure, he became extremely guarded and suspicious about my inquiries. Open-ended questions were met with blank stares, or confrontation. I expressed to him that I was there to help and to make sure he was safe. It appeared as if he had heard this all before. As a result, Antonio shut down, dismissing me and asking to return to class. I couldn’t help but observe that my dismissal had been done with the sophistication of a young adult.
My subsequent talk with his 7-year-old brother, the youngest of the three brothers, yielded a much more detailed account of their home life. The younger brother spoke of Antonio as if he was the ”man of the home,” saying that Antonio wakes him up for school, stops the arguments in the house, “spanks” him when he’s bad, prepares his dinner and “takes care of Mommy when she is sick.”
It was later revealed that their mother had a heroin addiction; she had been in and out of treatment for the last 5 years since the death of her husband at the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. She later lost her job from what she says was an act of retaliation from her supervisor. As a result of this and almost by default, Antonio began to do the things his mother and father once did. He washed all of the clothes in the home as best as he could, cleaned dishes, and bathed himself and his siblings when it was convenient. He had stopped a fire in the home started by his mother who had nodded off with a lit cigarette in her hand. He also checks his younger brothers’ homework. He hadn’t grieved the loss of his father from the 9/11 tragedy, did his best to protect his mother and siblings from outside influences, relied heavily on his mother’s boyfriend to buy food for the house, and killed mice and other vermin in their 2-family home, which was visibly neglected.
Antonio has fallen victim to parentification. Parentification is a child’s response to compensate for their parents inability to function, either due to some inadequacy, external circumstances, or general absenteeism. Behaviors that aren’t age appropriate are taken on by the child and essentially a role reversal is assumed or boundaries are less rigid and blurred. Research shows these behaviors may lead to isolation, educational difficulties and other maladaptive or emotional problems. The burden carried by the parentified child can be overwhelming and confusing. However, the age and level of development of the parentified child is also important. One must make cultural considerations and consider the family’s strengths when conducting an assessment of family functioning as it relates to parentification.
Later that evening when responding to Antonio’s home to make contact with his mother, Antonio met me at the door with a look of bewilderment and confusion. He just knew his family would be broken up and he wept deeply, blaming himself for being a failure and expressing that he is “tired.” With a heavy heart, I reassured Antonio that I was there to work to keep his family together and that none of this was his fault.
Later in the investigation, we learned that the mother had made herself and children unavailable to many family resources. She had a vast network of extended family members who were ready, willing and able to assist. Those family members were leveraged by the child welfare agency to keep the family intact and provide much needed emotional, social and physical support. The paternal grandmother moved into the home, while the mother engaged in in-patient treatment. The children received individual and group counseling and visited with their mother weekly in the early stages of her treatment. Several aunts and uncles cleaned up the home and took the boys out to shows, movies and trips.
Initially, Antonio worked to maintain the pattern he was familiar with, disciplining his brothers, protecting them from the influences of others, and found difficulty in letting the adults in his family take the lead on duties that were once his. The agency’s involvement with the family concluded after roughly 14 months, with the mother making progress in treatment and the home situation stabilized. The paternal grandmother assumed custody of the children, but kept them actively involved with their mother and family. To the best of my knowledge, Antonio is still the de-facto man of the house.
Thank you Mr. Andrews for your time and insights into parentification.