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Archive for Monday, February 23, 1998

GRANDPARENTS FILL GAPS IN BROKEN FAMILIES

February 23, 1998

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For a variety of reasons, many grandparents are finding themselves more and more responsible for the upbringing of their grandchildren.

Norma English planned to be retired by now from her preschool teaching career and living a carefree life vacationing and traveling.

At age 53, she has raised six children. She is retired, but she has put her traveling plans on hold for her grandchildren.

``I'm supposed to be out on a yacht or sunbathing,'' she said. ``But it wasn't the kids' fault. Those kids are a part of me, and since their parents couldn't get it together, I could.''

English, Wichita, is one of many grandparents across the nation who are finding that they have to care for their grandchildren when the parents get into drug or alcohol problems, are incarcerated, die or abandon their children. U.S. census numbers show that almost 4 million children live in their grandparents' home, and almost 1.5 million live there without either parent present.

Just how many of those grandparents are the primary caregiver for the 4 million grandchildren is something no one exactly knows, something the Census Bureau plans to correct in the next census. A 1996 act amended the census laws to require the bureau to collect data ``concerning the growing trend of grandparents who are the primary caregivers for their grandchildren.''

In Wichita alone, English, who has adopted four of her grandchildren and helps care for four others, said she easily could come up with hundreds of other grandparents raising grandchildren. Her volunteer work as the Kansas organizer for Grandparents as Parents (GAP), a nationwide service organization, has made her aware of grandparents all across the state in similar situations.

``I know more that would be willing to come forward,'' she said, adding that many grandparents refuse help or public acknowledgment in an effort to reduce strains with their own children.

In fact, several grandparents in the Lawrence area with full-time care of their grandchildren didn't want to talk. One local grandmother whose grandson and her own daughter have moved into her home said she feels for full-time grandparents.

``We're in our 70s, and we're not ready for them,'' Elaine Shreves said. ``Life changed, and we learned to live with him. He certainly got us up off our chairs.''

But Shreves said her life is nothing compared to other grandparents' since her daughter is in the home and remains the main provider and authority for the 6-year-old.

A local judge and attorney said many grandparents' fear of taking on even part-time care reflects the grandparents' delicate situation.

``Sometimes the grandparents are reluctant to get involved,'' Judge Jean Shepherd said. ``They don't want their children thinking they are trying to take the grandchild away.''

Shepherd said grandparents are the only relatives who must be notified if a child is about to placed in a foster home. They have the option of caring for the child first, but not all choose to.

``It is difficult for older people to take on the responsibility,'' Shepherd said. ``They want their own children to do it.''

Sometimes the difficulty comes in not having the necessary financial resources.

``There is some minimal assistance out there, depending on the age of the children,'' said Ernie Dyer, a job developer for the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. ``If the grandparents are not over 60, they have to look for a job. We help them with that.''

Other forms of help, such as Temporary Assistance to Families and Social Security, are out there but under strict-need requirements and time limits, said Lawrence lawyer Peggy Kittel.

``It's tough, but those grandparents stick up for the little ones,'' Kittel said.

A better look at just how many grandparents raise their grandchildren could open some doors to financial and supportive help, said English, who has made several trips to Topeka and Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of grandparents nationwide.

``We have to change the way the system works,'' she said. ``We have to do whatever it is that will get (grandparents) over this hurdle. If we could all get together, we could get something done.''

But until that happens, English said she will continue spending her retirement money on private Christian schooling, Nikes and movie tickets for dates.

``Sure, the money I put on them I could have put it up or spent it on myself,'' she said. ``But anytime there's a child involved it's worth it.''

-- Selena Stevens' phone message number is 832-7165. Her e-mail address is selena@ljworld.com.

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