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Family takes care of family

March 15, 2002|BY KATE COLEMAN

More and more grandparents in the U.S. are caring for grandkids full-time.

Pat Owens says her husband, now retired, just laughs and has given up on the idea of the two of them taking a long vacation - alone.

The Thurmont, Md., couple raised five children. They adopted two children, and had three biological kids. They took care of 11 foster children.

"I always wanted a big family," Owens says.

Now Pat and Ken Owens are at it again, raising their 14- and 5 1/2-year-old grandchildren. It doesn't matter how the kids came to live with them, for Owens, 58, the bottom line is the same.

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"Just as long as I've been on this earth, family takes care of family," she says.

The couple is not alone. More than 4.5 million children younger than 18 are living in grandparent-headed households in the United States, according to U.S. Census 2000 data.

That's more than 6 percent of the country's nearly 73 million children younger than 18.

And the number of kids being cared for full-time by grandparents is nearly 30 percent more since the 1990 census, according AARP's online Grandparent Information Center www.aarp.org/grandparents/home.html.

Who are these people who take in little tykes around the time others are hitting retirement?

The majority of grandparents raising grandchildren are between the ages of 55 and 64; approximately 20 to 25 percent are older than 65.

They cross all ethnic groups and walks of life, but are more likely to live in poverty than other grandparents, according to AARP.

"I'm a member of AARP and I'm doing PTA," says a 54-year-old woman who doesn't want to be identified because she doesn't want to jeopardize her adoption of the grandchild she is raising.

Grandparents are raising grandchildren for a variety of reasons. AARP cites the death or illness of a parent, divorce, immaturity, incarceration, substance abuse, child abuse or neglect.

"Somebody needs to come to the rescue," says Lorraine Schack, coordinator, Senior Services, City of Rockville, Md. Rockville has had a support group for about eight years. Grandparents Raising Grandchildren meets twice a month at lunchtime, because that's convenient for those who still work, Schack says.

Monthly meetings of Grandparents as Parents of Howard County draw from 10 to 25 people, says Ellen Willinghan, who coordinates the support group in Ellicott City, Md. The organization, which started in 1997, has about 100 people on its mailing list, but Willinghan estimates that there actually are as many as 2,100 grandparents and other relatives who are raising children because the kids' parents are not in her area.

The two-hour meetings provide opportunities for networking before and after speakers on specific topics. Child care is provided.

Owens sought and found support in the Howard County group, and three years ago started a Grandparents as Parents group in Frederick County, Md. Members meet monthly at different locations, but their support for each other is "24-7," Owens says.

Grandparents who are parenting again need to know they are not alone.

There are a lot of tough issues - legal, financial, health-related.

In many cases, there's a lot of stigma, Willinghan says. If you're taking care of your child's baby, there must be something wrong with your child.

In addition, even while parenting the grandchild, the grandparent still has to be a parent to his or her child.

And, being a grandparent is not a legal relationship, Willinghan says.

"That's the first shock they get," she says of grandparents who are raising their grandchildren.

The Maryland legislature is considering bills that would allow relatives to make certain educational and health care decisions for the children in their care.

Owens, who says she didn't even know how to get to Annapolis a year ago, has testified in support of such legislation.

She wants to make a difference for the families whose stories are similar to hers.

"This is not about me. My case is not the exception," she says.

Owens has been on medical leave since May from her full-time job. Her husband, Ken, had cancer and is now in remission. And when she took the children, Owens didn't have the resources to meet the commitment she'd made.

In particular, she says, she couldn't afford not to work and she couldn't afford daycare.

"It was a scary time."

There are also emotional terrors. Grandparents who have made the decision to care for their grandkids can have them ripped from their arms because many of them don't have formal or legal standing.

"Most are terrified of the system," Owens says.

Many - even those whose children have substance abuse problems - hope that things will get better, Willinghan says.

"They don't want to break that relationship with a child" by taking legal action, she says.

The situation of grandparents raising grandchildren is growing, Owens says.

"People are being traumatized and being left emotionally and financially bankrupt - losing their savings, losing their homes," Owens adds.

She has channeled her frustrations into action, advocating change to help people in similar situations, supporting others and being supported.

Raising grandchildren is not a piece of cake or a walk in the park, Owens says.

And it's sometimes exhausting, she says.

But for Owens, "It's a given. You just don't even consider not doing it."

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