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Valentines All Year Long

Departing from its traditional role, the county attorney's office in Louisville, Kentucky, is supporting grandparent caregivers.

By Frances Diana Hayden

From the heart of a child living in our midst come words, genuine and profound, that reflect the vital lifeline between children and their grandparents or kinship caregivers.

Increasingly, grandparents and other family members are interceding on behalf of children whose basic needs are not being met. They are the family safety net of protection. They prevent the children in their families from becoming wards of the state. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) estimates that 3.7 million children live with kinship guardians--often the direct result of parental abandonment, substance abuse, child abuse, neglect, divorce, illness, or death.

Since 1995, the Jefferson County Attorney's Office in Louisville, Kentucky, has offered support for people providing kinship care for their grandchildren.

A Nontraditional Role

Though social programming is not the traditional role of a prosecutor's office, the Jefferson County Attorney's Office has a history of involvement in family issues. For example, the county attorney provides an in-service program, Recognizing, Reporting, and Responding to Child Abuse and Neglect and Domestic Violence, for public and parochial school personnel and child day care providers. The office also distributes a parent resource handbook as a primary prevention initiative.

In 1983, then County Attorney J. Bruce Miller began a program for latchkey children--The Caring Connection. This free educational program for parents of children enrolled in public and private schools was offered in cooperation with the adult education program of the Jefferson County Public Schools. This led to another program, begun in 1986, connecting seniors with latchkey children by telephone.

The county attorney's intergenerational (IG) programs expanded under Miller's successor, Mike Conliffe, and under the direction of IG consultant Mary Cheap. For example, Conliffe's office cosponsored Family Focus, an intergenerational celebration of traditional, single-parent, blended, and extended families that featured, among other things, an intergenerational choir and a dance troupe. The office has been involved with an intergenerational concert with the Louisville Chorus and in the production of two books--Cross Stitching Generations (created jointly with a local elementary school) and Connections,a guide for fourth and fifth graders about elders.

In linking local school children with seniors in IG activities, the Jefferson County Attorney's Office has built a coalition of private and government agencies, local businesses, the faith community, civic and professional organizations, the arts, parks and recreation, nursing homes, educational systems, and the medical community.

Supporting Grandparents

With concern for grandparents raising grandchildren growing, the county attorney's office in 1995 collaborated with a grandparent support group, led by Dr. Wayne Harper, and the IG committee of the local Aging Resource Center (ARC).

The county attorney's office provided funding for and began organizing a community forum on the issue of grandparents raising grandchildren. In that forum, a panel of service providers explored with grandparent caregivers their concerns about legal and legislative matters, social services, finances, parenting, and child care. Participants, who ranged in ages from 30 to over 70, came from all over the Louisville-Jefferson County area and crossed racial and socioeconomic lines.

Kinship caregivers had much to say. They expressed frustration with the judicial and social service systems and shared examples of professional prejudice against grandparents and kinship caregivers. They discussed the time away from work required for court appearances and social services, and they highlighted the need for legal and legislative changes. Caregivers talked about the financial burdens of caring for their grandchildren, emotional issues, and parenting and child care concerns.

Motivated by the concerns that grandparent caregivers had expressed in the forum, the Jefferson County Attorney's Office undertook a new initiative--Grandparents As Surrogate Parents (GASP). Nearly 100 service providers agreed to work with the county attorney's office to produce an award-winning public service campaign; a 40-page Resource Guide for Grandparents, Kinship Caregivers, and Other Guardians of Children; workshops for grandparent caregivers; and a series of summer support groups. The county attorney's office provided the funding for GASP, and all services were offered to grandparent caregivers free of charge.

The resource guide, published in 1996, remains one of the most vital components of GASP. It helps grandparents and other guardians identify and access umbrella services to help them care for the children they have taken under their wings. After four printings, nearly 20,000 copies of the resource guide have been distributed in local public and parochial schools, child care centers, numerous public and private agencies serving at-risk children and families, library branches, and a host of nonprofits.

The Invisible Group

The greatest hurdle continues to be identifying the guardians. Many are isolated and invisible to the educational, judicial, and social service systems. Not all are court-designated guardians. Many have simply stepped up to the plate on behalf of their grandchildren.

We have learned much about kinship caregivers. Their common thread is that they are fiercely loyal to the children in their care. They often feel they have no rights. They believe they have little or no voice when the best interests of their children are being considered. And they endure frustration in the mixed messages they receive from the legal and social service sectors.

At the 1995 issues forum, one angry grandmother related how she was treated with disrespect when she appeared in family court on behalf of her grandchildren: "The judge told me to sit down and shut up." Another grandmother shared that she was trying to raise two teenagers on her monthly disability check. We even learned of great-grandparents caring for children.

In Kentucky, this issue stretches all the way to the governor's mansion in Frankfort, where Governor Paul Patton and First Lady Judi Patton have cared for their three grandchildren. This high profile at the state level, coupled with GASP's collaborative efforts with nearby Lexington, has sparked legislative activity in the state General Assembly.

In 1997, the state Senate and House Judiciary Committees held a joint hearing on kinship care issues. Among many who spoke on behalf of grandparents, kinship caregivers, and other guardians of children was Lt. John Mills of the Louisville Police Department.

As he and his wife Linda (pictured on page 5 with their grandchildren, David Jr. and Amanda) approached their retirement years, they dreamed of buying a motor home and traveling. Those plans changed, however, when they became the legal guardians of their son's two children. The Millses' grandchildren see their father occasionally but have not seen their mother for more than three years. John and Linda are the only parents the two children have known, yet, as legal guardians, they "live with the fear that someday, the birth mother [will] return, tell the court she has straightened her life out, and now wants to be a mother to her children."

Lt. Mills told state legislators:

Kinship caregivers are raising these children [by] choice. They put the needs of the children above all else, including their own, to ensure that they have stability during their formative years. . . . When they grow to adulthood, we want children to have a life story filled with pages of love and stability, not incomplete or blank pages.

There needs to be more consideration given to kinship caregivers who have made this sacrifice. Current laws do not provide the same benefits to grandparents as to foster parents, unless the children are wards of the state and the grandparents are named as foster parents.

We would like to see the burden of proof shifted from the kinship care provider to the biological parent who abandoned the child for years and now feels a compelling urge to parent again. Grandparents should not have to deplete their life savings defending themselves for being the parent [that] the child's biological parent never was. The state's position should be one of defending that caregiver instead of their current misguided efforts to "reunite" the family.

Our main concern is putting the interest of the child first. However, we cannot ignore the tremendous financial strain into which many kinship caregivers are placed. While we can presently afford to raise our two grandchildren without financial assistance, there are many who cannot. There need to be some of the same benefits afforded to kinship caregivers as afforded to foster parents.

Raising children at age 50 takes a greater toll on one's physical and emotional well-being than raising them at 30. Imagine being 65 and raising 10 grandchildren with assistance from the state of less than $300 a month. Yet it is happening here today. . . .

Current law and policy [emphasize] reunification. . . . It is appalling that the only way a financially burdened grandparent or kinship caregiver can receive adequate support from the state is to become a foster parent to their own grandchild, niece, or nephew, thus relinquishing their rights and authority as family. Foster parents do not live in fear that one day the biological parent will show up at their door and say, "I want my child back." We do.

John Mills's observations nail the concerns expressed by other caregivers who have participated in GASP workshops. They encounter myriad stumbling blocks while trying to grasp the intricacies and nuances of these systems. They feel they lack consideration when courts are making decisions about the children already in their care. Often, it is their intercession on behalf of the grandchildren that prevents the children from slipping into foster care; yet, compared with foster parents, they receive little or no assistance.

They feel that they have little or no voice and that these systems need to be more responsive to them. The county attorney's office is drafting legislation for the state General Assembly to help give grandparents that voice and to help make these systems more responsive to them. That legislation would allow custody to be awarded to persons other than a child's parents if it were in the child's best interests, and allow anyone who has had de facto custody of a child to be entitled prima facie to an award of custody.

Kinship caregivers face huge financial burdens. They need resources for food, clothing, housing, transportation, substance abuse counseling, and the special needs of their children and grandchildren. They need access to such financial assistance as Social Security, food stamps, child support, and medical care.

Kinship care arrangements can result in conflict within a family's framework, and caregivers may have to face and resolve sizable emotional issues. Issues of dual authority often arise, for example. Both caregiving grandparents and their adult children may experience guilt, anger, and feelings of failure as parents. Caregivers may become frustrated with the parents of their grandchildren over not accepting responsibility for their own children, or tensions may arise between grandmothers and grandfathers. And caregivers may harbor unresolved anger toward their grandchildren, which can impact children's feelings of self-respect.

Finally, grandparent caregivers express many parenting and child care concerns, such as discipline and communication between caregivers and their children. Kinship caregivers must deal with their personal physical limitations and come to grips with the reality that caregiving never ends. Some grandparents are physically unable to care for their grandchildren, and nearly all need access to some form of respite care. Finally, having bonded with their grandchildren emotionally, many kinship caregivers share a common fear--that the parents will return for their children.

Through its resource guide, GASP helps connect caregivers with the agencies that can help provide these types of supports and resources and informs caregivers what documentation they must have in hand to access these services.

Grandchildren's Wisdom

Although GASP sought input from the caregivers, we also valued the children's responses. When we were first putting the resource guide together, we approached several area elementary and middle schools and asked children to express through words and art what their grandparents meant to them. Sifting through their essays and drawings, we received a priceless gift. Their regard and warm feelings for their grandparents, who share their values and build character through work and play, was striking. We wove the students' comments and art throughout the guide because they were so compelling, from the heart.

The names that children call their grandparents--Bubbie and Poppy, Mima and Boompa, Grammie and Grampie, Nana and Nanu, Momo and Pawpaw, Oooma and Ooompa--bubble and fizz like the children's enthusiasm for their grandparents. These lyrical terms of endearment mirror the love, admiration, and respect the children feel for their caregivers.

The children's descriptions of their grandparents are as diverse as the grandparents themselves. Grandparents are celebrated for such simple acts of love as baking chocolate chip cookies and chess pie, sharing museums and books, and modeling patience and manners. Whether their grandparents are gifted in playing racquetball or making popcorn, children regard them as family heirlooms because they treat their grandchildren like treasures and make them feel "like a real family." Said one child: "They are my Valentines all year long."

We have learned through the wisdom of children what they value--our presence; keeping promises; setting limits; listening to them; looking into their eyes; and embracing them with our arms, our words, and our expressions.

Fran Hayden is the public affairs director for the Jefferson County Attorney's Office, Louisville, Kentucky, where she directs prevention programs in child abuse and neglect and family violence.

For More Information . . .

The American Association of Retired Persons offers resource information through its Grandparent Information Center, 601 E Street NW, Washington, DC 20049; 202/434-2296.

To learn more about GASP, contact Fran Hayden, Jefferson County Attorney's Office, 315 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd., 5th Floor, Louisville, KY 40202; 502/574-5500.

This article is from the Winter, 1998 issue of Children's Voice magazine. For information on the magazine see the Publications Page. Copyright © 1998 by The Child Welfare League of America. All rights reserved.

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