Sunday, July 18, 1999

Grandparents parents again

Raising their childrens' kids can be struggle

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Irish Graham began to take care of grandson Edmond, right, and his twin brother, Edward, when her daughter became ill.
(Thomas E. Witte photo)
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        Irish Graham's life has been put on hold.

        Instead of going to her job in the afternoon, Mrs. Graham picks up 4-year-old twins from the YMCA. Rather than traveling with her husband on vacations, she makes dinner for four and draws warm bath water.

        Mrs. Graham, 53, of Lockland, took custody of her grandsons because her daughter has a mental disabil ity and could no longer care for them.

        She is one of a increasing number of graying Americans who are raising a second family at a time most people begin thinking about retirement.

        When she began caring for the twins, Mrs. Graham quit a job she loved and opened the thrift store so she could make her own schedule and be there whenever the boys need her.

        “Things come up when you have kids you're raising, and I needed to be available for them,” Mrs. Graham said. “I thought I was done with this business (child rearing). But God gave me the vision to do this, so I just stepped out on it.

        “Now I know that the boys are safe and happy, and they don't have to be in a foster home. That's what is important to me.”

        It's called kinship care — when a relative, most often a grandparent, assumes custody of a child. Many times the arrangement is less formal, with the relative not interested in full custody.

        Whatever the form, the instances of kinship care have risen sharply during the past 10 years.

        Nationwide, more than 5.5 million children live with their grandparents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

        About half of those households do not have either parent present.

        In Ohio, 131,000 grandparents, at an average age of 52, are raising grandchildren. Half of those households have two or more grandchildren and annual incomes below $30,000.

        The country is struggling to deal with the trend because many services available to foster parents — such as vouchers for clothing and furniture or free day care — are not available for kinship caregivers.

        Curtis Satterwhite, coordinator for a kinship care pro gram with the Hamilton County Department of Human Services, says that situation leads many people to feel abused by the system.

        Mr. Satterwhite started a support group for kinship caregivers that meets once a week. More than 100 families have gone through the 12-week course, some of them twice.

        “In most cases, it's about finances: paying for beds, clothing, food,” Mr. Satterwhite said. “Many of these people don't qualify for a lot of the different services because of the way the statutes are written.

        “When we meet, you can feel the stress these people are under, and hear the anger in their voices.”

        Last year, Hamilton County placed 212 children (or 36 percent) with a relative, rather than putting them in costly foster care. That number is up from 162 (25 percent) in 1993.

        Mary Causey, 57, is one of those people who feel angry at the system for not supporting her more. Relatives willing to take in children who otherwise would be sent to a foster home save the county a lot of money, she said.

        And Ms. Causey says the county, in turn, should provide more services for kinship caregivers.

        A North College Hill resident, Ms. Causey took in her two grandsons, ages 7 and 12, about a year ago. She gets $296 per month in assistance from the county, with no additional help for day care, school clothes or rent for the larger apartment she had to move into when the boys came to live with her.

        “They eat that in a month,” Mrs. Causey said of the money she receives. “The system is saying that as long as a family member has the child, it's not (the county's) responsibility and to hell with them.

        “So I just do the best I can. That's all I can do. That and hope.”

        Foster parents can expect subsidies for day care, clothing and furniture on top of food allowances.

        Barbara Manuel, director of client services for the county's Children Services Department, acknowledged disparity between services for foster parents and relative caregivers. She said the thought was that the state needed to provide incentives to motivate people into becoming foster parents.

        Relative caregivers were thought to have needed fewer incentives because of the blood relationship. But the state and federal government are looking at ways to change the system and provide more support to them, she said.

        “We're looking for (proposals) to provide increased support for relatives, for whatever incidentals they need,” Ms. Manuel said. “Right now, once we give custody there is no ongoing way to provide services. We need a way to give that support.”

        U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, is taking an active role at the federal level.

        Mr. DeWine is chairman of the subcommittee on aging, which last month held hearings on the National Family Caregiver Program.

        Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, a lobbying group for children and older Americans, told the subcommittee that the system throws up many obstacles for people caring for a relative's child.

        Among them:

        • Legal: Many relative caregivers don't seek adoption because the process may disrupt the family. But choosing informal arrangements may limit their rights as a child's primary caregiver. Caregivers often have trouble obtaining the legal services needed.

        • Health and mental health: The stress of caring for young children can overwhelm many older people, causing stress-related illnesses.

        • Education: Many school policies are geared toward traditional families and may pose special obstacles, including the inability to enroll the child and inaccessibility to school records without proof of legal guardianship.

        • Housing: Relative caregivers often take in children with little or no warning and may have difficulty accommodating them in their residence. They struggle to find different housing that is affordable.

        In addition to being ineligible for many social services, grandparents often find it difficult to get medical care for their grandchildren because many insurance companies refuse to allow a grandparent to carry them as a dependent.

        “Grandparents provide an important safety net for children by holding families together and preventing hundreds of thousands of children from involvement in the foster care system,” Ms. Butts told the subcommittee. “Including grandparents among those caregivers eligible for services makes sense.”

        In most cases, living with a relative is better for a child than living in a foster family, experts say. But being separated from a parent does have an impact on the child, even if he or she was being neglected or abused by that parent.

        Dr. Jacqueline Kinard, a clinical psychologist in Cincinnati, said long-term separation from parents often leads to problems with self-esteem and relationships.

        “The effects can be tremendous,” Ms. Kinard said. “Very often the cycle is repeated in their own personal lives and these children choose friends or mates where the relationships are out of balance.

        “It's common for people 40 or older to still be dealing with these issues,” she said.

        For the grandparent or relative giving the care, the impact can be less severe depending on the amount of support available, she said.

        But sitting behind the counter of God's Variety Thrift Shop, the store she opened after quitting her job, Mrs. Graham said the struggle and sacrifice was worth it.

        “If I hadn't taken the boys, I would still be on my job and traveling with my church a lot more,” Mrs. Graham said. “My life would be much different. But they're a joy, and it makes my heart glad to see them happy.”


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