Grandparents raising grandchildren often get little support

Grandparents raising grandchildren often get little support September 04, 2006 — Community relations director Judy Leitner keeps trying to retire.

She even gave her notice of departure three months ago to Oklahoma’s Aging Services Division, then didn’t have the heart to follow through.

The reason is uncomplicated and unselfish. She works with grandparents raising grandchildren with behavioral and other problems — a mission that grows ever larger and more difficult in Oklahoma and elsewhere but one Leitner refuses to give up on.

“This costs society a lot of money,” said Leitner. “That’s why this issue is important to all of us.”

Costs, she explained, associated with breaking the cycle of families without mothers and fathers due to drugs, alcohol, AIDS, neglect, abuse, abandonment, divorce and parents in prison.

Social experts say these are the major factors contributing to what they describe as a disturbing trend of a dramatic increase in grandparents caring for their children’s troubled children because the biological parents are incapable of doing so or dead.

And, they warn, unless something is done soon to reverse the trend by helping grandparents cope with the challenges of raising these grandkids, the problem will get worse with the next generation and the consequences may overwhelm the nation.

“You think our prison population is exploding now?” said Leitner. “Just you wait.”

Today, 6 percent — 4.5 million — of the children in the United States live in a grandparent-headed household, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 30 percent higher than a decade ago. Most of the youngsters are impoverished and many suffer from significant emotional problems, including depression, learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. Often, the statistics show, they are born “crack babies” or with fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Professionals don’t know how to deal with these kids,” said Leitner. “Nobody knows how to deal with these kids.”

Yet, she said, grandparents are increasingly asked to take on the responsibility of raising them without adequate resources to help with the financial, cultural, psychological and physical challenges the children represent.

Grandparents stepping in to raise their grandchildren in times of need is not a new social phenomenon in the United States. It has been going on for years, with some well-publicized modern success stories such as Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx, Maya Angelou and Jack Nicholson.

But what’s different now, Leitner and other experts say, is the surge in the numbers tied to missing parents through drug, alcohol and AIDS deaths, violence, incarceration and mental illness.

Their offspring have become known to medical and social professionals as the “walking wounded” in need of special care and education. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management calls the demographic boom a “silent epidemic” not fully recognized by the nation’s public assistance network.

Most grandparents are eager to raise their grandchildren, especially when the alternative is foster care or putting them up for adoption. Many also feel guilt from poor parenting that caused the children to be without a mother or father, said Susan Kelley, dean of the College of Health and Human Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.

“Often,” she said “grandparents say, ‘We’ll be better parents this time around.’”

That can and does happen, said Kelley, when there are support services to assist with child rearing. But such services remain scarce, with both federal and state officials slow to react to the need, she said.

“I’ve been involved in the field of child abuse for the last 25 years,” said Kelley. “I’m struck by the number of grandparents who have taken on the role of caring for their children’s children who had been abused, neglected or abandoned. I’m struck by the lack of societal support.”

This tepid attitude moved Kelley to establish the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren at Georgia State five years ago. It was the first organization to bring together social experts, policymakers and researchers to address the issue.

The center’s purpose, said Kelley, is to encourage and promote effective support services for grandparents, conduct research, educate professionals in the field about the special social and health issues in intergenerational families, and influence public policy.

“Due to advanced age, poor health, poverty, minimal education and lack of transportation, these grandparents are typically unable to provide the grandchildren in their care with much beyond the basic needs,” said Kelley. “Thus the children continue to be at risk because their grandparents often have inadequate resources to raise them.”

Project Healthy Grandparents in Atlanta served as the forerunner to the national center. It was started in 1995 and works directly with grandparents, providing programs such as parenting classes, education workshops and mental health care.

Carol Watkins, a 49-year-old Madison County, Ga., grandmother, knows the value of support services. She’s resolved to break the generational cycle of childrearing mistakes by raising her daughter’s 9-year-old twins, Kyle and Tyler.

Her daughter, she said, married young, soon got a divorce and suffers from alcoholism and severe mental illness. She does not know the whereabouts of the boys’ father.

Watkins and her husband, Daniel, 68, the stepgrandfather, took informal custody of the twins when they were 5 months old, and later adopted them to overcome restrictions on medical treatment for a host of physical and behavioral problems, including manic bipolar disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome and hyperactivity. Watkins said Tyler takes seven medications daily, and Kyle four.

The Watkins’ priority is education. They homeschool the twins because the children kept getting into fights at the public elementary school. She relies on regional support programs for educational and medical assistance.

“Homeschooling puts a lot of stress on you,” she said. “If there’s something I don’t understand I have to find somebody who does.”

And it is paying dividends, she said.

“I was told these boys would never learn,” said Watkins. “They just finished third-grade. I’d like to see them make it through life on their own and not, I repeat not, get into trouble with the law.”

Deborah Phillips, the coordinator for Project Healthy Grandparents in Athens, Ga., said it is important that grandparents set goals and stick to them. Even when it means freezing out the biological parent.

“Some grandparents reach the point where they have to say no contact,” said Phillips. “They make decisions in the grandchild’s best interest while it cuts against the interest of their own child.”

But establishing priorities often means serious financial sacrifice for grandparents, she said. This, in turn, can lead to money problems that government assistance programs seldom recognize, she added.

“A grandmother may have been working a full-time job and probably doing OK,” said Phillips. “Then she has to quit her job to take care of the grandchildren and now they’re struggling. So many are living in poverty.”

In most states, Phillips said, financial assistance available to grandparents raising grandchildren does not equal the payments made to families who care for foster children even though the needs are the same. Nor are they eligible for food stamps if they are not the legal guardians.

A federal study in 2004 determined that if 20 percent of the children living with their grandparents outside of foster care assistance were to enter the system, it would cost taxpayers an additional .5 billion a year.

“The states do not want to have to pay for them,” she said. “They do not want legal responsibility for them.”

Furthermore, said Watkins, too many federal and state lawmakers believe grandparents have a “duty” to raise grandchildren from broken and troubled home situations because “they screwed up when raising their biological children.

“There’s an incredible bias against our families,” Watkins said.

That’s a view that Stephanie Chacker shares. She’s the director of GrandFamilies House in Boston, an 8-year-old breakthrough project that’s meeting one of the biggest challenges facing grandparents raising grandchildren: low-cost housing.

GrandFamilies House was the nation’s first subsidized housing project exclusively for grandparent-headed households. It features 26 apartments of two, three and four bedrooms. Services include transportation, day care, outdoor playground, counseling, arts-and-crafts classes and even the opportunity to grow a garden.

Funding for the program comes from a mix of public and private sources.

Chacker measures the success of GrandFamilies House by plans to duplicate it in Detroit, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia and other urban communities. She’s also proud that no kids raised at GrandFamilies House have been returned to the state’s foster care system.

“They have all experienced loss in some way,” she said. “But they feel a little better here.”

The youngsters also get a good chance at life, said Ida McKoy, 63, who is raising three boys — two teenagers and a 12-year-old — at GrandFamilies House. She said the warmth, security and sense of community help boost the self-confidence of the youngsters and the seniors.

“People say it keeps you young,” said McKoy. “It doesn’t keep you young. It gives you energy to keep going.”

Ray Scruggs, a 58-year-old grandfather from Athens, Ala., who helped raise his granddaughter when his son’s wife abandoned the family, said it also requires a deep family commitment that too often isn’t there. He said his son’s wife had also been abandoned by her mother.

“Somebody’s got to break that cycle,” said Scruggs.

Social service experts say far more must be done when you consider that the majority of urban households caring for grandchildren are headed by a single grandmother with less than a high school education.

Demographers call these children the “skipped generation” and the American Association of Retired Persons said it is concerned about the shortage of caregiver assistance programs to overcome this handicap.

The AARP maintains a Grandparent Information Center to help guide seniors raising their children’s children, and it cooperates with social service agencies in urban communities to reach out to grandparents who need professional counseling on how to advance their own education and enroll their grandchildren in good schools.

One of those professional counselors is Gloria Smith, 56, who works two days a week for AARP’s Warm Line program at the Helene Mills Multipurpose Center in Atlanta. She knows from personal experience the challenges grandparents face. She earned a four-year college degree, then toiled as a social worker for several years before taking on the task of raising her daughter’s daughters — Precious, 16, and Diamond, 4.

Smith said her daughter is a crack addict who couldn’t care for her children from the time they were born. Now Smith is doing everything she can to stress education so her grandchildren don’t get hooked on drugs.

“I was looking at colleges and now I’m looking at preschools,” said Smith. “I’ll do what I have to do.”

That’s a perspective advocates for grandparents want policymakers and legislators to more quickly embrace, pointing to a new law in Kansas as an example of what can get done.

The Kansas law provides low-income grandparents 0 per month for each grandchild they are raising. They continue to receive the money until the grandchild reaches 21 if she or he remains in school to that age.

Emanuel Jones, a businessman and state senator in Georgia who was raised by his grandparents, said society in general lacks awareness of the demographic change taking place in families.

“We have to understand that the traditional family today may be a grandparent raising grandkids,” said Jones. “That requires a shift in the way we think and act about our social services.”
By Kelly Kazek
CNHI News Service
Kelly Kazek is a CNHI News Service Elite Reporting Project Fellowship recipient. She writes for The News Courier in Athens, Ala.
Copyright © 1999-2006 cnhi, inc.

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