Seniors raise kids when parents get in troubleWritten by Scott McKimmy | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Helen Fletcher’s story began on Valentine’s Day, 2004. Like so many before and since, the 66-year-old grandmother found herself thrust into a situation where children became victims of their parents’ destructive activities.
“The older one came to live with me last school year because he wanted to go to Scott [High School], where I went to, but the others were not by choice,” she said. “I had to go one cold February night and pick them up from Detroit. Their mother had been arrested.”
Fletcher said she has managed to absorb the cost of supporting five grandchildren after selling her home in Southfield, Mich., and leasing an apartment in southwest Toledo. The former government worker adjusted her life to suit her grandkids’ needs as well as those of her father, whose health began failing about the same time she intervened into her daughter’s personal problems.
Her first priority was to enroll the three boys and one girl into school in grades one through four. The extended family is living comfortably, she said, and the children won’t be reunited in the same home with their mother until Fletcher is certain the mother’s life is “straightened out.” One father is in contact; another is deceased, and the third has abandoned his responsibilities, Fletcher said.
“The main thing was to get them back into school and get their lives back on course,” she said. “They were not going to school; things were happening to them that should not have been because of their mother’s problems and her lifestyle.”
For more than 2.3 million grandparents, aunts, uncles and others nationwide raising their relatives’ children, it often takes every penny and the last drop of energy they can muster day after day.
In Lucas County, about 6,000 families raise children who are related to them, but separated from their birth parents, said Judy Paschalis, director of the Kinship Navigator program through the Area Office on Aging in Northwest Ohio. She explained the complexity of the situation for kids whose parents have been incarcerated or are battling addiction to drugs or alcohol, which account for nearly all of the cases that walk through her door.
Few have resulted from illness, injury or other catastrophes not linked to poor life decisions.
“When the kin take in relatives’ children, it’s usually because of drug and alcohol abuse,” Paschalis said. “Sure, there’ve been traffic accidents or something, but we don’t hear from those folks. Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s drugs and alcohol or things that happen — like incarceration — that stem from drugs and alcohol.”
More surprising, perhaps, may be the widespread anonymity of grandparents and relatives assuming the responsibilities of the next generation’s children, in part because of their lack of involvement with Lucas County Children’s Services. When circumstances arise forcing relatives to harbor their kin’s children, an informal arrangement is made, and the county agency has no grounds to step in and exert its powers.
“The kin probably don’t have custody when they take the children in. They’re not involved with Lucas County Children’s Services or the courts in any way,” Paschalis said. “They just saw that the kids needed a good home and took them home with them one Sunday night.”
The scenario has repeated itself involving as many as 4 million kids, according to GrandsPlace.com, an Internet service connecting those with relatives’ children to resources for legal assistance, health programs and support networks throughout the country. The grandparents and other kin often share a burden of rearing kids from infants to adolescents while they themselves face the financial and physical hardships of aging.
Their retirement plans never included the possibility of supporting children through their 60s or 70s.
One grandmother, who chose to be identified only as “Anne,” has been slipping toward financial ruin from legal fees incurred in custody battles with her daughter over Anne’s grandsons, ages 14 and 10.
Costs have reached the $10,000 mark during the course of 17 court appearances, she said, which has robbed her of resources she needs for the children’s welfare. The daughter receives free legal services due to poverty, while Anne struggles to provide a proper home life on wages just above minimum.
“I’m getting close to retirement; I have zero money in the savings account because we’ve been in court so many times,” she said.
Anne has raised the two boys practically from birth, she said, also with no support from the father. And although her daughter signed off custody long ago, she made an about-face four years ago, filing to have the boys returned to her. Anne related the legal strategy often used by family lawyers in a system that inherently favors birth parents regardless of their inability to provide a stable household.
“One attorney that went to a Kinship [Navigator] meeting said, ‘I hate to say it, but if you don’t go into court moaning and groaning and crying and sobbing, you’re going to lose,’ ” she said. “‘The parent that does this will win.’ ”
The problem had been exacerbated by the lack of government assistance for elders raising relatives’ kids until Kinship Navigator emerged about five years ago, according to Paschalis. She has run the program originally established by the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, but later turned over to AOoA. Recent legislation has facilitated the process of gaining custody of grandchildren and enrolling them in school.
However, word has spread slowly, and many adults raising relatives’ offspring have no idea of the availability of health coverage and monthly benefits — up to $451 for four children — in Medicaid dollars.
Joy Gibbs said she just discovered the opportunity to obtain health insurance through the state and is waiting for approval. The burden of raising her daughter’s two children has been much more emotionally trying than financially debilitating.
No longer just a grandmother, Gibbs has to play the strict parent of a 2-, 5- and 13-year-old. Meanwhile, her daughter undergoes treatment at a local clinic for a cocaine addiction, which Gibbs believes to be at the root of her problems, along with mental health issues that have never been addressed.
“When I first got custody, I was excited, but I realized how drastically my life was changing,” she said. “It isn’t a serious financial burden, but I am sometimes resentful.”