We all know the grandparents, aunts, or uncles we want to be. That image, brought to us from television, is the funny and charming star who, played by a beloved veteran actor, brings wisdom and levity into a household filled with rules and homework. All of us want that role. And we’ve waited a lifetime to play it. Yesterday’s sitcom has not evolved into today’s reality. Increasingly, family trauma and strife has forced these traditionally part time roles to become central characters in a child’s life. Often, extended family— and grandparents in particular— have become the lead players in child care. The “grand” in grandparent has been lost, morphing for better or worse into simply “parent”.
The Changing Reality
“There is no question change has occurred in who is caring for our kids,” says Michael O’Shea, who retires this year as Superintendent of Springfield Local Schools. “We have 12% of our kids who are either doubled up or fully living with relatives.” Doubling up is a term used for children who have children moving back in with parents. “Many of these parents have job or financial troubles and want to stay within the district. Moving in with grandparents or relatives is an obvious solution. These situations may be temporary and have always been with us.” O’Shea emphasizes the landscape change. “What has risen so dramatically is the grandparents who are the full-time caregivers for the student. Our grandparent caregivers are entering an education system that has changed since they last had contact. Naturally when a grandparent takes custodial care of child that situation comes with a history. We recognize that all of us can fall into circumstances we have little control over and we try to meet that caregiver and their students’ needs as best we can with our resources available.” What O’Shea sees anecdotally in his district plays out nationally as well. According to a study by the Population Reference Bureau (www.prb.org), one in fourteen children in the US live in grandparent-headed households, or about 7 percent. More staggering according to the Pew Charitable Trust, the number of children with grandparents as the primary or sole care providers grew 16% in the decade starting in 2005. And this is no short-term living arrangement. Forty two percent of these grandparents or other non-parent family members will provide care for five or more years.
The Kinship Care Challenge
“It is a daunting task,” remarks Arcelia Armstrong, Coordinator of the Caregiver Support and Kinship Navigator Programs at the Area Office on Aging of Northwestern Ohio. “Many grandparents or family members are asked to step into a parenting role at a moment’s notice, often under difficult and dramatic circumstances. Most of us don’t have raising an infant in our retirement plans.” It is a deep and growing problem. Armstrong, who is a 21-year veteran at the Area Office on Aging, sees these issues daily. “For every child placed formally in foster care with a grandparent, there are 20 children being raised by grandparents outside of foster care. This care can be called upon on a repeated, on again off again basis.” This increase, explains Armstrong, is the primary driver of the Kinship Navigator Program. The program started as a partnership between Lucas County Job and Family Services, Lucas County Children Services and the Office on Aging. After a 3-year demonstration grant finalized, it was up to local counties and regions to extend the program. “Although our agency covers 10 counties across Northwest Ohio,” says Armstrong, “kinship care programs very from county to county depending on funding. Regardless of your county, we are a good place to start. We can review the grandparents’ options and connect them to the services that they qualify for.” There are many challenges. It is not as simple as bringing a child into your home. Grandparents face a host of issues when accepting a grandchild into their homes. “We begin with something as simple as custody,” says Armstrong. “Many grandparents have never faced any legal or personal issues. Now they are in what can be an adversarial situation. Many feel that seeking custody is somehow giving up hope on their adult child.” Challenges extend beyond legal to a world of daycare, special needs, insurance, summer camp and education. Even technology issues have changed. Most grandparents never had to face computer time, internet use, or even when to get a child a cell phone. Those issue didn’t exist when they were last active parents.
Help and Hope are Available
“Going from a fixed, retirement oriented income to full-time raising grandkids can be an instant financial and emotional issue,” explains Armstrong. The financial issues are obvious. The Kinship Navigator Program, through their partnership and connection to other county and state agencies, can provide guidance in obtaining financial support for minor children, obtaining medical and behavioral health services, school enrollment, even providing links to basic services like food, clothing, and utility assistance. But the Kinship Navigator Program doesn’t stop at resources. They have a wide variety of parenting classes and support networks to encircle the grandparent during their time in the parenting driver’s seat. “We always want to take the long view, with the hope of reuniting children with their parents,” says Armstrong. The nice thing about our program is that, through our strong partnership with other agencies, we can wrap our arms around the whole family, regardless of how that family is composed.” “I have seven grandkids,” says O’Shea, whose grandkids range in age from 10 years to 6 weeks. “I have come to realize that, as someone who will soon be retired, I would need all the help I could get if I was called upon to raise kids again. Every time I am with my grandkids I am quickly reminded how much effort it takes to raise kids in a healthy, safe, and loving environment. Any grandparent who takes on this task needs all the support we can give.”
Resources for Kinship Care
usa.gov/child-care: A starting point for grandparents who seek assistance and aid from governmental sources. These normally require a formalized, legal relationship which may be temporary or permanent. raisingyourgrandchildren.com: A general information website, edited by Author Karen Best Wright with starting information and web resources about kinship child care and parenting. grandfamilies.org: Grandfamilies.org is collaboration amongst three different organizations to provide a nexus for kinship parenting, including legal, private, federal and state resources, with particular emphasis on legal rights and challenges. areaofficeonaging.com: The Area Office on Aging of Northwest Ohio kinship program. co.lucas.oh.us: Lucas County Children Services has several programs to assist kinship caregivers.