How to help out a struggling teen with a complicated family situation
February 27, 2013 9:47 AM   Subscribe

My 14-year-old niece is having trouble in school and has very few, if any, resources among her immediate family. Compounding the problem, her guardian is not family and seems to prioritize her own son's needs over hers. We want to help but we live a thousand miles away. What can we do?

The niece is my wife's brother's daughter. She lives in Oklahoma with my brother-in-law's ex-wife (who is not her mother) and her younger half-brother because neither of her parents can take care of her -- my brother-in-law drives a tractor-trailer and spends days or weeks at a time out of state; her mother and her current partner have a combined 11 children and can only afford to take care of two, so the rest live with extended family.

We were in town for a visit this weekend, and she seems to be struggling in school pretty badly. She's participating in the school band and doing okay, but she's also failing multiple classes and has already been held back once in a rural school district that's honestly pretty terrible, which doesn't bode well for her ability to succeed in a college environment. She has very little in the way of a support network that could help her build a life as a high school graduate or dropout - she has few friends and her family situation is a mess, as mentioned above.

Making matters worse, while it's great that the ex-wife was willing to keep taking care of her after the marriage broke up last year, she doesn't seem to be getting much help at home. We were in town for a visit this weekend and had to take her for an 8 PM shopping tip for science-project supplies because the ex-wife said she would take care of it and then forgot, two days in a row (we confirmed this). She goes to public school while her half-brother is in a superior private school. We've noticed some signs of preference outside of the school context too, like a Christmas present that we addressed to both kids ending up under the tree with just the brother's name on it. I can't resent my ex-sister-in-law for caring about her son, but it just doesn't seem like a good environment for my niece, even if it might be the best readily available one.

Ideally my brother-in-law would get a 9-to-5 job and take his daughter in, but that would require him to hold such a job for more than a few weeks without quitting in a huff over some affront to his dignity or personal independence. While it'd be great for him to suddenly learn how to be an employee, it's not too likely at this point.

We are a late-20s professional couple with no kids of our own. My wife is the only member of the family to graduate college and really wants to be a role model for her niece. But we can't be there physically on any kind of regular basis. How can we get more involved in her life? Skype calls? Regular letters? Wholesale adoption?
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish to Human Relations (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Can she come live with you? My husband's baby sister got booted from her boarding school, and came to live with us for the last two years of her high school. It wasn't kittens and cuddles, but it worked out okay, and my inlaws (her parents) were swimming in resources, but were short on time and frankly, after 5 kids, a bit worn out with the whole thing. You don't have to adopt her, but you need something so that you can act as guardians. Would your bil go for this? Would your niece feel too lonely?
posted by Ideefixe at 9:51 AM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

How does your niece feel about all this? What's her take on it--is she happy where she is? Has she spoken frankly with you and your wife about her living situation?

The best thing for your niece would be to live with a stable family who was fully invested in her well-being. That doesn't describe her current situation; nor does it sound like it would be the case if she lived with either of her biological parents. It sounds like it could be the case if she lived with you and your wife.

Are the two of you willing to take her in?
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:58 AM on February 27, 2013

like a Christmas present that we addressed to both kids ending up under the tree with just the brother's name on it

Oh that poor kid.

If this sort of thing is indicative of her home situation, then the ex-wife is as likely to shape up as the brother-in-law, and there's very little you can do other than take her in yourself. I mean, no more joint Christmas presents, obviously, but that's just an iceberg-tip...
posted by ook at 9:59 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I agree with Ideefixe. The best way to help her would be to remove her from the crappy school and the guardians who don't give a crap about her. This is assuming that she would want to go, of course, and that the parents would be amenable.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:00 AM on February 27, 2013

Re: taking her in, we've talked about it between us but haven't had a chance to discuss it with either parent or the guardian. Our worries are that (a) she'd be lonely as all hell without her siblings, parents and hard-won schoolfriends; and (b) the move from rural Oklahoma schools to an affluent district in Virginia would raise the standards to the point where getting held back again is a real concern (if not outright likely), and since she's in 7th grade now if that does happen she'd be 16 by the time she gets out of middle school. I realize that neither of those is an end-of-the-world situation, but it does make life with the two of us seem less sunshine-and-rainbows.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 10:06 AM on February 27, 2013

You could certainly offer to take over custody, even if adoption isn't the best move. Your brother-in-law probably wouldn't mind, and I don't imagine that his ex-wife would be that put out that her daughter was being taken care of by an aunt and uncle instead of an ex-stepmother. She might be able to make up work in the summer, especially if you can afford to pay for tutors. But it would be better to be held back there and eventually get an education than to be passed until she drops out or failed so she drops out.

If that doesn't work then I would phone/Skype regularly, send postcards or letters -- mail is fun -- and perhaps things that come up in conversation, and separate gifts to her and her half-brother, in the mail addressed to them.

If you cannot visit her, you can also try to have her come out and visit you.
posted by jeather at 10:10 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

She might not be held back, so I wouldn't anticipate that. Why not try her for a summer, in summer school?
posted by Ideefixe at 10:14 AM on February 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

I understand your concerns about the transition shock of moving from OK to VA but she wouldn't necessarily be working at the same pace in your home, given ample resources.

Could you cover the costs for tutoring? In person at her home preferably or a 1:1 online service otherwise (might have to get your niece her own computer + internet access so it doesn't get co-opted by her half brother).
posted by jamaro at 10:16 AM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Don't let the transition/school shock be a barrier to taking her in. You might be surprised at how well she does academically when living in a supportive, nurturing environment. You can save a kid!
posted by PorcineWithMe at 10:25 AM on February 27, 2013 [9 favorites]

If you can do it, and you're on board, I'd advocate taking her in.

Perhaps there's a charter school in your area that can address her issues, and I love the idea of summer tutoring.

Also, get involved in sports, tennis, soccer, etc during the summer so that she'll have folks she knows before starting school in the fall.

I hate to mention this, but you'd be eligible for child support from her dad and her mom, and those funds would support your niece in some fine after-school tutoring.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:29 AM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

When I pulled my sons from public school to homeschool, they were both more than a year behind in writing. I got them more than caught up in about three months. In a more supportive environment, a child can catch up. So it isn't necessarily a given that she would fail again if you took her in.

But there is also a lot you could do from a distance. Live chat. Exchange emails. Try to find a means to put resources into her hands which would not go through the guardian, perhaps via a reloadable debit card.

When my kids were being homeschooled, my sister sent books and asked my sons to email her book reports on them. Then she gave feedback via email. When I was supporting a troubled youth from afar, I began blogging to give her more of my time when we couldn't arrange enough live chat time to meet her needs.

There are plenty of ways to help with homework, get needed information to someone, provide emotional support and get resources to people from a distance. Those things can make a huge difference. When I was very ill and largely housebound, I got a lot of social support from a distance. So I have been on both sides of the equation. I know it can be quite effective.
posted by Michele in California at 10:30 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Yeah, doing badly in a bad school does not automatically mean doing very badly in a good school. If the bad school is not adequately dealing with even some simple to address issues, it can drastically affect a kid's performance.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:30 AM on February 27, 2013

If she is doing poorly in school, do you think that the problem is that she has the capability, but is disengaged or distracted by the issues going on in her life? Or could the problem be a learning disability, has she been evaluated? Is there enough support and advocacy for her in Oklahoma for her to get tested and then (if something turns up) for her to get the support and individual plan she needs to catch up. Her rural school district may not have the resources to do this well, which would be another consideration that might favor her living with you.

In the meantime, you can call her every night and ask her about her day, learn about what is going on for her. If you have daily contact, it may become more apparent one way or the other whether her living with you is going to be the better option.
posted by artdesk at 10:32 AM on February 27, 2013

I am going to say this since no one else did..proceed carefully. Even parents that don't appear to care about their kids can get sniffy if you swoop in and start with the well-meaning plans. Is the stepmother getting support to care for the girl? Maybe she won't want her to leave, even though she neglects her. She is also likely to be outraged if anyone implies she is abusive. The dad may also feel guilt that you are cleaning up his mess and that might make him resistant. The girl may not want to do anything to make either parent think she is badmouthing them, etc. And you really don't want any bad feelings to spill over into how the girl is treated.

So; extreme politeness, gushing over How Wonderful the girl is, how close you feel to her, how you would love to help her through school, nothing about How Awful her parents/family are.
posted by emjaybee at 10:42 AM on February 27, 2013 [14 favorites]

I want to strongly second Ideefixe's excellent suggestion of having her come stay for a summer. Its an easy trial run for everyone, with a fixed end point which is an easy out if things dont work out. However, be prepared that it won't be sunshine and rainbows no matter what, because she's a teenage girl who likely has issues (abandonment? resentment?). She sounds like she needs help, and its awesome that you want to help! You don't say anywhere in your question how you and your wife get along with her. Does she seem to like you both?
posted by Joh at 10:42 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think letting her finish the school year with as much long distance support from you as possible would be the best option right now. Then bring her to VA for the summer, maybe with tutors or maybe not. Get to know what SHE thinks about her situation. Then decide what to do.

I think she should have some input in what happens to her. A trial summer with you guys would do two things: give you all a sense of how you would work together as a family, and expose her to the possibilities that come with a different, more supportive environment.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:45 AM on February 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

If it's in your heart to do it, I'd say see if you can get her to come and live with you. Or as the summer holidays will be here pretty soon, maybe see if she wants to come and spend the summer holidays with you guys. If nothing else regular visits might help her see that there are other people out there that care for her and that there is a world outside of a small country town. I imagine neither the Step Mother or Father would consider staying with an Aunt and Uncle for the school holidays too pushy, and heck the Step Mother would probably be glad of it. Then you can get more of a feel for if her coming to stay with you would be a good thing or a bad thing. You can also help her out if she is in need of any material items like clothes or school supplies for the new school year if that's something you'd want to do.

How good is your relationship with her father, would a phone call to just chat about things and maybe feel things out be out of the question?

Having said that, as an Aunt I would be swooping in there and carrying her off to a better life so fast people wouldn't see me for dust.
posted by wwax at 11:02 AM on February 27, 2013

Be very complimentary about all the good work the present guardians are doing and even play, the childless card, if necessary, but take the girl in. It is a hard time to be her age without support.

You can catch her up with intensive tutoring but it is important that you play the politics rights to get her into your household. But first, ask her if this is something she would like, maybe as a trial basis.

Once you commit to taking her into the house you must stay the course otherwise, she will truly feel shunted around.
posted by jadepearl at 11:12 AM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

and (b) the move from rural Oklahoma schools to an affluent district in Virginia would raise the standards to the point where getting held back again is a real concern (if not outright likely)

I'm sort of a special education broken record in these kinds of questions, but if she's already been retained once, one thing you could help with is getting her assessed for special education services. She might have an undiagnosed learning disability, attention problem, or some other issue.

On the other hand, she might just be a typically-developing kid who has a chaotic living situation. In that case, if you can't take her in yourselves, I LOVE the idea of paying for her to have a private tutor (oh god if you could find a peppy and well-qualified youngish female teacher to be a good role model...?) regularly as well as regular calls, letters, and Skype time from you. And encourage her in band! Send her music, ask her to play something and record it on a tape for you, send you pictures of her in band uniform, send her some little present or treat every time she practices for 100 minutes outside of band practice. An activity she loves will go sooooo far in keeping her in school and building her confidence up.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:15 AM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Can you offer her positive consistency? When the only regular things in your life are disappointment and failure, and things to look forward to are rare and/or random, knowing that you can call/facetime/be with someone who's not going to judge you or look down on you or hear you but not listen would probably be appreciated. Would she be interested in a new long-distance friend? If so, get on that phone. Better yet, video chat. Daily if possible, weekly at the very least.

Plus, it would give her an exemplar and a basis of expectation for establishing other, closer, and more immediate consistently positive aspects in her life. (Like going to class every day, for starters.)
posted by carsonb at 11:43 AM on February 27, 2013

My fiancée has 3 younger half sisters (16, 18, and 20) with parents who are not as involved as everyone would like.

Here is the support I have/am willing to provide: When we talk, I ask how school is going. I ask what they learned that day/week that was interesting. If they say 'nothing', I try to let it slide (now). I tell them repeatedly and individually that they are smart and capable of working hard to do well in school (especially after I see a really crummy report card). I offer to help with what I can over the phone or skype, and remind them of the importance of being responsible (I don't care if you have a first year teacher with unreasonable standards, you are the only one who can get an A in the class, and I leave the room if they say 'I can't take tests' or 'I am bad at math' or 'My teacher hates me'). I pay for the ACT twice (each), and will pay for a prep course once if they take the initiative to find one. They all know all of this, because I frequently ask about their plans for the future-- not always in a 'what major? what job?' way, but sometimes 'what kind of life do you want to lead? ok, how much do you think that will cost?' or 'I took the ACT three times and studied my ass of in college, and look how it's paid off!'. I also try to remind them that school is expensive, but so far they've all ignored me on that. :)

When I was local, I spent two evenings a week (4-7pm) tutoring the youngest (one of the older girls was allowed to come if she had homework and agreed to be quiet). This was the hardest/most involved part, but it's been about 8 years since we did that. The youngest is doing the best in school right now, and obviously I'm not responsible (she works hard), I do feel really happy that I took a second grader who couldn't add or spell and turned her into an avid reader who consistently gets As.

The oldest moved in with us for a year after (barely) graduating high school. I was excited-- I thought we would give her the calm and loving environment that would allow her to thrive in the community college program she enrolled in. This ended up being basically a wash-- she did not do well in her classes, even though we did practically everything possible to help her structure her time & studying, and she ended up dropping out and moving home. I don't regret offering her that support, but definitely won't be extending the same deal to the two remaining in high school!

I don't know if any of my experiences help, but I wouldn't be overly quick to offer to take in your niece. Do tell her you love her and you think she can do well in school (but you love her even if she does disappoint). Do invite her to live with you for the summer. Do not mention that you're considering this as a trial run-- it sounds like she needs some consistency, and if you're willing to provide that, you will definitely be a positive influence in her life!
posted by worstname at 12:27 PM on February 27, 2013

Well, if you are contemplating wholesale adoption, you are at least open the option of making a serious financial commitment, so one option might be paying her with private tutoring or private school tuition, and perhaps funding other opportunities, like band trips, summer band camp, inviting her to spend significant stretches of summers with you.

The christmas gift thing though, that's hard to get past. It's one thing for her to favor her kid (and there are problems there anyway), but to take something that your stepchild's family sent to both kids and turn it into a gift for just her kid, that's twisted and wrong. I'm not sure how to address it though. I think it would be hard to move away from friends and siblings at that age. Is there someone in town else that might be a better guardian to her? Any aunt's or uncles?
posted by Good Brain at 12:50 PM on February 27, 2013

Surely there's a Montessori or Waldorf-type school where you are in NOVA that would nurture her where she is academically, and provide a positive social environment as well. If you can do it, do it.
posted by headnsouth at 1:20 PM on February 27, 2013

I am from a broken home and officially grew up at my mother's home, with a well-meaning step-dad. It was total chaos. I was at the school's observation room (child psychologist's office) every single week, at least once, often more. What saved me was family members taking me on for shorter or longer periods of time (in an other thread, I wrote about losing a parent, actually it was my granddad, because eventually, I moved there, and they assumed the role of parents in my life).

What I want to say here is: even the shorter periods, like weekends and holidays where my aunt and uncle let me stay at their home meant the world to me. Just being in a home with fresh fruit and cold milk available was amazing. A supply of paper and watercolors was magic.

From my own experience, I would suggest that you begin with some shorter "holidays" from home, and then take it from there. It would give you the chance to feel if you are ready to do this (as I said, in the end it was my grandparents who took on the responsibility); the child a time to adapt - if you live under really difficult circumstances, normal can be difficult; finally, there will be time for the parents to accept the reality of the situation. I know my parents needed that.

My siblings were not as lucky as myself, my grandparents couldn't take on more grandchildren (a cousin was also there), but still they had the "breaks" provided by aunts and uncles and other grandparents. And though I did better academically, it is clear that we all did a lot better than kids with no help from family and friends. So don't ever think you aren't doing enough. Every single tiny little thing you do has immense value for a child like your niece.
posted by mumimor at 3:10 PM on February 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Everyone, thanks a ton for your help. This has been really enlightening.

We're going to start talking regularly, especially about schoolwork, and got permission from her father to offer a summer at our place if she wants. The next step is to reach out to friends and family in the area and get an idea of what she could do with herself during those months. If she's interested, and it goes well, we'll start entertaining the idea of something long-term.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 6:37 PM on February 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

Changing homes and schools in order to be cared for by two people that genuinely want her around and care about her, even for just part of the year, is a tiny little inconvenience for a huge reward, even if she gets left back for two years. Which she won't.
posted by davejay at 7:41 PM on February 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

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