(WOMENSENEWS)–For Gloria Shell, parenting has proved even tougher the second time around.
Since 1997, when her drug-addicted daughter was murdered on the streets of Baltimore, Shell has struggled to help raise the three children her daughter left behind. At 58, she works full time at a day care center. Suffering from heart trouble, she can’t afford health insurance. Unable to find reliable babysitters, she’s cut back on her social life and fallen out of touch with many longtime friends.
Even so, Shell is happy that her daughter’s youngest son–a 10-year-old named Keenon–continues to live with her full time though his brother and sister often stay with other relatives. Under Shell’s care, this once-troubled boy is succeeding academically, socially and in his after-school art classes.
"When Keenon was younger, he would either withdraw from others or lash out at them," says Shell. "But I knew he deserved a chance, and I’m making sure he gets one."
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 5.8 million grandparents are living with their grandchildren, a 60 percent increase since 1990. An estimated 2.5 million grandparents–63 percent of them women–are responsible for raising their grandchildren, which can strain their resources as they struggle to take charge when mothers and fathers can not.
To help the growing number of grandparent caregivers, lawmakers in March introduced the Kinship Caregiver Support Act, which would entitle "grandfamilies" to the same subsidies that foster families receive. Grandparent-headed households are currently ineligible for this aid, even though the care they provide saves the foster care system an estimated $6.5 billion a year, according to Generations United, a Washington-based nonprofit.
Sponsored in the Senate by Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and in the House by Danny Davis, D-Ill., and Tim Johnson, R-Ill., the bill could come up for a vote later in 2007.
Emotional, Social Strain
Sociologists say grandparents are raising 1 in 12 U.S. children for a variety of reasons, including biological parents’ health problems, drug abuse, imprisonment, divorce, neglect and extended military deployment.
"Regardless of how they’re formed, grandfamilies often live in legal limbo," says Donna Butts, executive director of the Washington-based Generations United. "Some grandparents hope their sons or daughters will resume parenting, but don’t know when this will happen. Unsure whether they’ll be caregivers for two weeks or two years, they never file for custody or adoption even though this would make it easier for them to enroll their grandchildren in school and get them medical care."
Even with legal guardianship, grandparents can still face enormous strain. Studies show those who are single are often isolated, while those with spouses suffer marital trouble.
"I never expected in a million years that I’d be parenting again," says Audrey Grant, 62, a retired court clerk in Detroit who gained custody of her grandson four years ago after his mother died of heart trouble. "Then again, you never expect your own child is going to die before you do."
As she bustles her 7-year-old charge to choir, swimming and piano practice, Grant tries to give herself extra time so she doesn’t rush and doesn’t stress. She’s determined to keep her high blood pressure in check, and to create a calm, reassuring home environment for her grandson, who was so traumatized by his mother’s death that he required a year of grief counseling and has had difficulty adjusting in school.
"It’s common for kids being raised by grandparents to have emotional problems that stem from losing their parents," says Teresa M. Cooney, an associate professor of human development at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Cooney’s research shows caregiving grandmothers are also at risk, more prone to depression than their peers, especially if they still have living parents and may need to care for the older generation as well as the younger one.
Finance Is Toughest Hurdle
Though they may face daunting emotional challenges, many grandparent caregivers say their No. 1 worry is money.
Take the members of Building Generations, the Detroit support group to which Grant belongs. One Wednesday a month, these seniors meet in a borrowed conference room to discuss gas bills, home repairs, school supplies–and how to pay for them.
"Well past the age of retirement, these grandparents are going back to work as secretaries, librarians and fast-food servers," says Juanita Bridgewater, the group’s facilitator. "They’re emptying their savings accounts, then facing decisions like whether they should pay for diapers or their own diabetes drugs."
Children living in grandparent-maintained homes are twice as likely as their peers to go without health insurance, reports the Washington-based Children’s Defense Fund. And one-fifth of grandparent caregivers are living in poverty, according to Census data.
Grandmothers and the children they raise are more pinched financially than members of male-headed homes. Women over 65 receive roughly half the average pension of men over 65 ($8,224 versus $14,046). They are also doubly likely to live below the poverty line, which is an income of $9,367 for an individual in that age group and $13,410 for a person over age 65 with a dependent under age 18.
Help on the Horizon
The good news for grandparent caregivers is that a growing number of resources are available.
Across the United States, support groups such as Detroit’s Bridging Generations are springing up. Larger organizations such as GrandFamilies of America, in Thurmont, Md., and the National Committee of Grandparents for Children’s Rights, in Stony Brook, N.Y., are also providing information and referrals.
"These grassroots groups can make all the difference," says Dot Thibodeaux, founder of Baton Rouge’s Grandparent Information Center of Louisiana. "Without guidance, how are you supposed to cope when you think you’re set for retirement then suddenly find yourself raising a house full of grandkids?"
Thibodeaux and other activists are helping grandfamilies get financial aid via child support, the foster care system, adoption assistance, state guardianship programs and federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Caregivers may also get an earned income tax credit or a child tax credit of $1,000 per year.
Advocates say help like this is necessary because the number of grandfamilies–and their needs–are likely only to rise due to extended military deployment, rising housing costs and other factors.
"Poverty, drug abuse and the other social problems fueling this trend aren’t going away any time soon," says Butts. "But neither is the determination of these seniors to raise their grandchildren right."
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer based in New York City.
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For more information:
Generations United, Grandfamilies:
American Association of Retired Persons, Grandparent Information Center:
Alliance for Children and Families, Kinship Caregiver Support Act white paper
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