With the passing of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day quickly approaching, conversations of what it means to be a mother or father fill the air. For many, the answer often differs from person to person, proving that how people define family is often nuanced and complex. In honor of kinship families across South Carolina and May as National Foster Care Month, we share with you the journey of a foster kinship caregiver taking the life changing step of becoming a licensed kinship foster parent in order to provide the best life possible for her niece.

Married for over a decade, Monica* and Jacob’s* new role as parents to their 15 year-old niece, Courtney*, has been a new responsibility that they welcomed. Over the past two years, Monica and Jacob’s daily routine changed dramatically. On any given day, they may be picking up Courtney from school, taking her to sports practices or spending time one-on-one. From the outside, no one would ever guess the circumstances this family faced that shaped the family they are today.

Just six years ago, Monica received devastating news that her twin sister who lived out of state was murdered, the fatal outcome of domestic violence. Left without her mother, Courtney, only 9 years-old at the time, went to live with her biological father. Though miles away, Monica maintained a constant presence in Courtney’s life as her aunt, providing support when needed.

As time went on, Courtney’s admissions of her father’s temper and neglect became a growing area of concern. Monica listened, serving as a long-distance advocate for Courtney’s well-being. She remained positive and encouraged Courtney to share her feelings with others. However, the more she listened, the more Monica began to feel that something wasn’t right. In February 2014, the Department of Children and Family Services removed Courtney from her father’s home due to reports by the school psychologist of abuse and neglect.

Courtney was temporarily placed with a relative until she could be transferred across state lines in August 2014, seven months later to Monica’s home. “All families want to have the people they love with them. The biggest change for us is that she is here and she is loved. She is in a safe environment free from abuse.” Because of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children, Monica and her husband needed to first qualify as a licensed kin foster care placement. In June 2015 their license was approved, 14 months later.

Although long awaited, Monica shared it was worth all the work to get licensed in the end. New to a parenting role, the required foster parent licensing training was beneficial to Monica and Jacob’s successful navigation of the child welfare system. The training also equipped them with increased knowledge of available resources and the supports needed to care for a young person who had faced adverse childhood experiences, like the loss and trauma Courtney was exposed to.

In recent months, the court terminated Courtney’s father’s parental rights. As a result, Monica and her husband are now in the process of solidifying their family even further by beginning the adoption process. “Children need permanence in their lives,” according to Monica, “Courtney now considers us as her parents.” Monica and Jacob want to continue to support Courtney in defining what her mark on the world will be. Now in high school, as Courtney thinks about her future, she knows she wants to help others because of how others helped her.

What makes a mother or father is a question not easily answered. What is for sure is that the path to parenthood can sometimes be defined beyond biology. For Monica and Jacob, it was the late nights spent worrying about Courtney’s safety and the hard work ensuring that Courtney has a bright future rooted in love. It is the tears, the laughter, the new memories and many prayers sent on Courtney’s behalf. With no biological children of their own, Monica and Jacob look back on their journey to becoming licensed kinship foster care providers with this belief, “We were meant to do this. We are family.”

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.