?Posted on Sat, Oct. 01, 2005
Grandparents find little help raising grandchildren

  • WENDY DAHLE: Special to The Bradenton Herald

Ten years ago, Laurie Connelly and her husband, David, decided to raise their two grandchildren when their daughter got into trouble. They believed it would be better for the two girls to have a stable environment while their mother straightened out her life.

Grandparents all over America are stepping up to provide safe homes for their grandchildren when parents are unable to care for their children because of substance abuse, mental and physical illness, death, economic hardship, divorce or other family problems.

It is estimated more than 6 million American children are living in homes headed by grandparents or other family members. In Florida, there are more than 345,000 children being raised by grandparents or other family members.

Rather than surrendering her grandchildren to foster care when her son and his wife were having serious marital problems in September 2004, grandmother Felicia Johnson decided to raise her four grandchildren. All of the children are under age 5.

"They're not going to have any stability if I don't take them," Johnson said.

Nancy Darr took in her two grandchildren during the 1980s when her daughter couldn't provide for them any longer. Darr's oldest grandson, Corey, who is now 23, has Tourette's syndrome, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and asthma.

Darr remembers it as being a difficult time for the family, but the alternative was putting the children into the foster care system, something she and her husband did not want to do.

"That's why the grandparents take the children," she said. "We don't want these kids to be in the system. We want them to be with people who love them."

But good intentions can turn into nightmares as grandparents face a social service system that doesn't always support their efforts, said grandmother Laurie Connelly.

"They've got to realize we need help here," she said. "We're the better alternative to foster care."

Grandparents can expect an extreme lifestyle change when taking on the responsibility of raising grandchildren. Often they have long since raised their own children, bought and paid for homes and cars. They have saved and looked forward to retirement and a more leisurely way of life.

Suddenly, what was supposed to be the "golden years" has turned into the task of raising their children's children. Their new role as parents can affect friendships, daily activities, retirement plans or even jobs as they try to balance what should have been a leisurely lifestyle with activities and schedules of newly acquired children.

"It can be a big adjustment," Darr said. "Their whole lives have to change."

Problems for grandparents raising their grandchildren can include finding the money to care for them and getting emotional support and legal help. Enrolling a child in school, getting a child vaccinated or adding a child as a tenant in an apartment complex can be extremely difficult and sometimes even impossible for a new "grandfamily," a term coined by several grandparent support groups.

Grandparents living in senior communities can be forced to find new housing arrangements because communities don't accept children, Darr and Laurie Connelly said.

"It's such a lifestyle change," Connelly said. "It's extremely tiring getting back into parenting."

Grandparents need money to pay for necessities like child care, clothing, food, health care - things they budgeted for in previous years when raising their own children, but have since put toward retirement.

Grandparents' retirement plans can sometimes become their pitfalls when it comes to raising their grandchildren. Assets accrued during a grandparent's lifetime can make it difficult or impossible for the families to qualify for state aid programs.

Unlike grandchildren under a grandparent's care, children in foster families automatically receive Medicaid and other federal, state and local benefits as a condition of their state supervision.

"It shouldn't matter what our income or assets are," said Laurie Connelly. "These are children we are trying to take care of because we love them and are trying to protect them."

Darr remembers struggling to pay for clothing, school supplies and health care for her grandsons.

Darr's husband was forced to retire early from his job at Tropicana due to health problems, and Darr didn't work or even drive.

After paying the house payment and necessary bills, Darr said there was little money left over.

"It was hard for us financially," said Darr, whose husband died in 1995, leaving her alone to raise the two boys. "When you are sending children to school it takes a lot of money - a lot of money we didn't have."

Johnson thought once she decided to raise her grandchildren, she could get financial help from social service programs. But she got turned down for food stamps because she owned a small home and had a little money saved in the bank. Eventually she qualified for $364 a month from the Department of Children and Families, but it still was not enough to defer the cost of raising four toddlers, three of which were still in diapers.

"We as grandparents are doing the same as foster parents," Johnson said. "They could do a little more to help us."

She struggled to find money to pay for day care for four grandchildren so she could hang on to her day job as a transportation aide for Manatee county schools. Her husband was physically disabled and unable to work or help care for the children.

"I couldn't get anyone to help me with day care," she said.

Like Johnson, the Connellys struggled to find affordable day care for their two granddaughters.

"My entire paycheck was going to day care," said Laurie Connelly.

But that wasn't the worst. Laurie Connelly and her husband faced dire financial consequences when the owners of the storage facility where they worked as resident managers didn't approve of the couple having the children on site, she remembered.

"We almost lost our jobs," she said.

After some convincing, the owners agreed to let them stay.

The financial strain of raising grandchildren has forced some grandparents to go back to work to supplement Social Security or pensions just to make ends meet, said Darr, who also operates a grandparent's support telephone line and facilitates a grandparents' support group.

"I have grandparents at 60 or 70 going back to work to take care of these kids," Darr said.

Because of this scenario, many children raised by grandparents are more likely to be poorer than children living with their parents.

The Connellys did not qualify for food stamps, but eventually did get long-term relative caregiver assistance through DCF in the amount of $248. They also got Medicaid.

But Medicaid didn't pay for an orthopedic doctor when one of the girls broke her arm. Connelly said finding doctors and dentists who accept the federal health-care plan was frustrating.

"I know a lot of grandparents are so tired of dealing with it they just pay for it," she said.

Legal issues also can haunt new grandfamilies. Getting full legal custody or guardianship of the children can be emotionally and financially draining, but often helps define parameters necessary to get state and federal aid.

The Connellys ran up against numerous problems with social service agencies when trying to get help to pay for their grandchildren's day care, health care and other necessities. Many government agencies don't recognize the living arrangement unless legal custody, guardianship or adoption is established, she said.

"It's easier to be a day-care worker,' said Laurie Connelly. "I don't understand why they put the grandparents through so much. It's like we're the bad guys."

Darr said there is a need for inexpensive or free legal services for grandparents in Bradenton. Most of these grandparents already are facing financial hardship and cannot afford an attorney to fight for custody or guardianship.

A more permanent custody arrangement or adoption can help protect the grandparent, and especially the child, from a dysfunctional or abusive parent. Adoption terminates a parent's rights.

Darr, the Connellys and the Johnsons hope state and federal programs will soon change to provide more support and make it easier for grandparents.

"I'm hoping somewhere out there will listen," said Darr.

Recently, grandparents marched to Washington, D.C. during the Grand Rally on Sept 14. Organizers of the rally urged grandparents to march or call a toll-free number to offer their support of legislation aimed at helping change legislation for grandfamilies.

Grandfamily supporters were hoping U.S. senators and representatives would co-sponsor the Kinship Caregiver Support Act, the No Child Left Behind Act and reject cuts to Medicaid that would affect grandchildren and their caregivers.

The government needs to recognize grandparents as viable parents for these children, they said.

"It eats you alive," said Connelly. "You're so tired of fighting the system and the bureaucracy."

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Are you a grandparent having to raise a child with Tourette on your own? What challenges have you had to face?