Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

CWLA launches new initiative to celebrate kinship care

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When Pat Owens brought her daughter and grandson, Michael, home from the hospital 15 years ago, she didn't imagine that she would be parenting again. But shortly after Michael's birth, Owens' daughter began to disappear for long periods of time. One day 11 years ago, she left and never returned. No one has seen or heard from her since. This left Owens and her husband to raise their grandson. Now, 68 years old, Owens has been raising Michael on her own since 2006 when her husband passed away.

At times, Owens felt overwhelmed by the difficulties of being a parent for the second time. When she realized there were other relative caregivers in her Frederick County, Maryland, community feeling the same way about the added responsibility of raising grandchildren, she formed a local support group. The group has grown into a national organization, Grandfamilies of America, with several thousand members around the country.

An exterior photo of the GrandParent Family Apartment Building.

The members of Owens's organization represent a growing number of American grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren. Now more than ever before, grandparents are taking on the responsibility of their grandchildren--often with limited income and little or no support services. These kinship care households are headed by grandparents, great-grandparents, or other relative caregivers who have taken on the primary responsibility of caring for their grandchildren or the children of other relatives.

The statistics and the struggles speak to the scope, severity, and significance of the problem that has escalated to epidemic proportions. The Brookdale Grandparent Caregiver Information Project based at the University of California at Berkeley Center on Aging has said that in the last 10 years, the number of children living with their grandparents has increased by 50%. Now, more than 2.6 million grandparents in America are raising 6 million grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census. Another 1.5 million children are being raised by other relatives. The circumstances that contribute to the growing nationwide trend of grandparent caregiving are often sudden, stressful, and as diverse as the families involved. The range of reasons includes substance abuse, illness, child abuse and neglect, incarceration, death, domestic violence, or other serious problems. Regardless of the reasons why more grandparents are parenting again, they are vproviding a critical safety net for their grandchildren.

In recognition of the important role so many grandparents play in their grandchildren's lives, CWLA is marking 2011 as the Year of the Grandparent: Keeping Kin Connected. Throughout the year, CWLA is paying tribute to America's grandparents and other kinship caregivers and promoting this parenting model as an effective way to reduce the number of children entering the foster care system and keep them connected to family. The yearlong campaign, which will feature a variety of educational and informational activities, was officially launched at CWLA's National Conference in March. The campaign concludes in 2012 when CWLA hosts a Year of the Grandparent: Keeping Kin Connected award ceremony to honor grandparents and kinship providers selected by their respective Congressional delegations.

Although families led by kinship caregivers are one of the fastest growing family groups in the nation, funding for services to support them has never been adequate. Consequently, economic hardships--in addition to legal, physical, and emotional challenges--are widespread among grandparent caregivers. The weight of these difficulties profoundly hinders their ability to support their grandchildren and maintain their own health and well-being. As the weak economy continues to drive the deepest cutbacks in vital social service programs we've seen in decades, these vulnerable families are facing an uncertain future. Despite the dire circumstances and the daunting challenges, there is a positive side to "encore parenting"-- the grassroots efforts of support groups, advocacy organizations, and the innovative approaches that are gaining widespread attention.

Housing

Nationwide, one of the first and most critical challenges for grandparent caregivers is finding affordable housing to accommodate the addition of grandchildren. Recently, the CBS Evening News featured a report on a unique residence in Bronx, New York, that was constructed to address this imperative need. The GrandParent Family Apartments (GFA), the only one of its kind in the country, is a six-story apartment building with 40 two-bedroom and 10 three-bedroom apartments specifically designed for grandparents raising grandchildren. Presbyterian Senior Services (PSS) partnered with the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing to build the $11.9 million housing development. Opened in 2005, the GFA supportive housing development is home to 50 families headed by grandparents 62 years or older with low incomes and legal custody of their grandchildren.

GFA is a vibrant village of mostly single grandmothers raising a total of 94 grandchildren. Only five of the households have both a grandmother and grandfather. The children in their custody range from toddlers to young adults. The oldest grandparent is 83 years old and she has been raising her two teenage grandchildren all of their lives.

This new brand of housing development wasn't designed as just a nice place for grandparents and their grandchildren to live. For grandparents who are struggling to give their grandchildren the best possible care, it takes much more than architecture. The real beauty of living in this building is being surrounded by the camaraderie of other families and a continuum of customized support services for the grandparents and the grandchildren. Some of the wraparound services include afterschool programs, tutoring, sports, a summer camp, counseling, support groups, respite care, legal services, educational workshops, and a wide variety of recreational activities. The testimonials of Grace Hickson, Lizzie Holmes, and Janice Flood are living proof that life at GFA has made a positive difference.

Grace Hickson, 65

Grace Hickson and her great grandson, Andre.

After raising four children of her own, Grace Hickson was enjoying an active lifestyle following her retirement from a long career as a licensed certified nurse's aide. In an unexpected turn of events, her carefree life abruptly came to a halt in 2009 when she became the primary caregiver of her four-month-old great grandson, Andre.

"The opportunity to move into the GrandParent Family Apartments was a godsend in many ways," Hickson says. When she took custody of Andre, she was confronted with the challenge of having to find another place to live. Like so many other grandparents who are living in seniors-only communities when they become primary caregivers for their grandchildren, she was facing eviction.

Now, Hickson and 2-year-old Andre are GFA's newest residents. They moved into the Bronx apartment building on April 8. For Hickson, living in a community near other kinship caregivers has already made a huge difference in her ability to care for her great-grandson. They are not only living in a safe environment, but they also have easy access to support services that educate and empower both grandparents and grandchildren. "For me, the apartment building is much more than a home because they keep the grandparents and the kids busy with all kinds of educational programs and recreational activities," Hickson says. "Here you're not struggling with your situation alone. It's a very supportive environment where you learn how to overcome the challenges and draw strength from each other."

Besides her fixed income, Hickson receives a small stipend and health care for Andre. She doesn't get welfare or food stamps for herself. Even though raising her young great grandson has been overwhelming at times, she says it's been a good experience: "He keeps me young, and the joys far outweigh the challenges."

Lizzie Holmes, 68

For Lizzie Holmes and her husband, caring for their three grandchildren was supposed to be a temporary arrangement while their daughter tried to salvage an abusive marriage. Instead, it turned out to be a long-term situation--raising two grandsons, 17-year-old Rory and 14-year-old Ramel, and a granddaughter, 10-year-old Raven. They were infants when the Holmeses first took them in. "My husband and I didn't want them to go into the foster care system because kids often get lost in the system. We didn't want that to happen to our grandchildren. We couldn't afford it, but we stepped in anyhow," Holmes explains.

The couple and their three grandchildren moved into GFA in 2006. "When they built these apartments, they did a wonderful thing. They need to build more housing like this where grandparents can support one another and give their grandchildren a better quality of life," Holmes says. "In this rough neighborhood, it's hard for the kids to go outside because of the crime and violence. The kids love it here because they don't have to go outside to have fun. They have it all right here on the inside."

The family has never received public assistance. They decided to raise their grandchildren with the little money they had rather than deal with the tangled web of red tape trying to get financial assistance and health care for their grandchildren. Since Holmes's husband passed away last year, it's all on her. She supports her grandchildren with her fixed income alone.

Janice Flood, 70

Janice Flood with her grandchildren Crystal and Eddie. Her other two grandchildren, Devone and Daquana, are away at college.

Janice Flood and her four grandchildren were one of the first families to move into GFA when it opened in 2005. Living there has made life a lot safer and easier for Janice and her four grandchildren -- Devone (21), Daquana (19), Eddie (16), and Crystal (9). Because of her daughter's long battle with drug addiction, the grandchildren have lived with Flood most of their lives.

When the neighborhood Flood had lived in for 40 years began to deteriorate, she decided it was time to move. "The neighborhood had become like the O.K. Corral--drive-by shootings and criminal activity all hours of the day and night. I was afraid for my grandkids to be outside," she says. GFA is only a few blocks away from Flood's old neighborhood, but now she's in a place that gives her peace of mind and a supportive environment. "I can sleep at night. It's like being in heaven compared to where I was living," she says. "Although this neighborhood still isn't the best, I'm grateful to be surrounded by so much togetherness, understanding, help, and hope. Something I didn't have before I moved here."

Flood has witnessed major transformations in the behavior and attitudes of the children in the complex since she moved in almost six years ago. "In just a few years, it's remarkable how living in this nurturing environment has helped the children overcome a lot of issues. At first, it was hard for many of the families because the kids were angry and rebellious about not being with their parents. But now, because of all the services, it's a much better atmosphere," she said. "Most of them are doing well in school. A lot of them are preparing for college or in college already." In fact, Flood's two oldest grandchildren are in college. Devone is a junior at Virginia State University majoring in mechanical engineering and Daquana is a freshman at Mercy College majoring in business.

Funding

Despite GFA's successes, the nationally recognized model is facing funding cuts that could eliminate vital services and staff. Like everyone else at GFA, Flood has deep concerns about the adverse impact of cutbacks. "If what we have here goes away, we'll have to go back to the kind of living conditions we came from and God knows what will happen to our grandchildren."

The programs and services provided onsite are supported primarily through funds from the New York State's Office of Children & Family Services (OCFS) and the State's Supported Housing for Youth and Adults (SHFYA) Program. According to Rimas Jasin, executive director of PSS, those funds have been eliminated altogether in the current New York state budget. Without funding to replace this loss, all of the programs and services at GFA will be eliminated as of July 1. "These cuts will be devastating for the grandparents and grandchildren," he says. They stand to lose the educational enrichment programs, academic support, vocational guidance, afterschool activities, and other social services that are helping the families flourish. "Elected officials should be investing more money into replicating our model. Instead, we're worrying about whether or not we are going to survive," says Jasin, who is working to raise $300,000 to save the programs and services.

Michele Chapple, director of the kinship program at PSS, works closely with the grandparents and the grandchildren. Chapple explained that representatives from organizations throughout the world have come to learn about what GFA does with the idea of replicating the program. "We can't be replicated if we're not here," she says, calling on lawmakers and other funders to come see the results. "Talk to the grandparents and the grandchildren before you cut our funds," she says. "Come see what you would do to these families if you take our programs and services away."

For more than a decade, Owens, the founder of Grandfamilies of America, has been an impassioned advocate for programs and services to better serve our nation's growing population of families led by grandparents. Ever since its humble beginnings, the organization has worked to educate policymakers and encourage funding for innovative policies and programs that will strengthen families led by kinship caregivers. "The people who are at the table speaking to congressional committees are usually not caregivers. Lawmakers need to hear more firsthand personal stories about the struggles 'grandfamilies' are dealing with on a daily basis," Owens says. "The child welfare system was not designed to meet the specific needs of children being raised by grandparents. The child welfare system was set up to take care of kids that had to be removed from their families."

Christine Holland, 58, has experienced many hills and valleys in the years she has been raising her granddaughter, also named Christine. Holland and her husband were not prepared to parent again. Chris, who is 12 years old now, came to live with the Hollands shortly after she was born.

The Hollands wanted their granddaughter to have the best opportunity for success, and they fought to adopt her. The adoption involved an eight-year court battle with their estranged daughter and a substantial amount of money spent on legal fees. The couple has never received any kind of financial assistance, instead deciding to go it alone for fear of having to do battle for funding. "I was afraid to contact social services. You read and hear so many horror stories. Plus, it's not easy to get information from social service workers," Holland says.

Once Holland got involved with Grandfamilies of America, she learned that Chris would have been eligible for health care, child care, and money for college if she had been adopted through foster care. "We're in a different financial situation now than we were 10 years ago when we were both working. Now, we have to live on much less money." She has rheumatoid arthritis, which forced her to stop working a few years ago. Her husband retired from his government job, but he couldn't afford to retire completely. They're concerned about money for Chris to attend college. Looking back, Holland has some regrets about not seeking help. "All of the money we spent on legal fees could have been set aside for Chris' college education," she says.

Stories like Holland's are a testament to a common and critical need for a coordinated service delivery system that supports grandparents. Grandparent caregivers are keeping many children from entering foster care, thus saving the government money and maintaining permanency for their grandchildren.

Access to Resources

Christine Holland with her husband, John, and granddaughter, Chris.

AARP's family expert Amy Goyer underscores the importance of kinship housing like the GrandParent Family Apartments that incorporates essential support services. She says that one of the biggest barriers for custodial grandparents is finding and navigating through the services and resources that already exist. All too often caregivers are uninformed about the legal options, public benefits, or services available and how to access them. "What's needed is a massive media advocacy campaign using all of the sources where people get their information today. Beside the typical media outlets like newspapers, TV, radio and the Internet, extensive outreach to churches should be an essential part of that effort," she says. "The media campaign should not be targeted to seniors only because many of the grandparents raising grandchildren today are not seniors."

Goyer says legal issues are another major obstacle to accessing services because the vast majority of custodial grandparents have 'informal relationships' with their grandchildren, meaning that the grandchild's custody went directly from the parent to the grandparent without involvement of the child welfare system. Because it's an informal relationship, there are few, if any, services available to the caregiver--including legal assistance. Since affordable legal representation is hard to come by, most informal caregivers don't have legal custody or guardianship. Some caregivers don't establish formal legal relationships because they want to avoid conflicts with the parents. Without a formal legal relationship, the caregiver may have considerable difficulty accessing school services, health care, financial assistance, affordable housing, and other much-needed support services.

In an effort to combat the difficulty of accessing services, the Fostering Connections to Success Act of 2008 allocated funding to establish centralized kinship navigator programs in states nationwide. These kinship navigator programs are designed to educate relative caregivers about programs and services available in their communities that will continually meet the needs of the children they are raising and their own needs as well. Kinship navigator programs help relative caregivers gain access to legal assistance, support groups, financial assistance, food stamps, respite care, and other critical services. Besides helping kinship families better use existing programs and services, these navigator programs can also strengthen the capacity of public and private agencies to better serve the needs of kinship families.

The facts and the figures about the demographic changes in America's family structure certainly magnify a need for more specialized services tailored for families led by kinship caregivers and concerted efforts to build their trust in child welfare services. Some states have made significant progress in implementing the Fostering Connections provisions. However, due dramatic budget cutbacks, implementation of the law's provisions has been slow in many states. At a national level, CWLA has been actively engaged in efforts to advance the implementation process. Although kinship caregivers are not necessarily traditional child welfare parents, as the Year of the Grandparent and other initiatives move forward, kinship caregivers have reason to hope that the system will continue to evolve to meet the needs of their families.

Beverly Jackson is a media and public relations consultant and a former television producer/director with experience in television news programming and production in major broadcast markets.

To comment on this article, e-mail voice@cwla.org.

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