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You look into their innocent eyes and you’re a goner. Your child can’t or won’t care for your precious grandchild and now all of the decisions regarding this child’s life are on your shoulders. You may have picked them up straight from the hospital or helped your child, their parent, with their care and support for several years, but now you’re on your own with a baby, toddler, school-aged child, or teenager. You’re single, over 50 and have raised your family. You thought these were going to be your “golden years” with retirement just around the corner or you’ve been retired for a while and are enjoying life with your friends. Then you’re thrown into a situation you may have seen coming, but find challenging for a variety of reasons. You don’t have the health and vitality you had when you were raising children. Your earning power has topped out or you’re living as a retired person, maybe just on social security. You have to decide if you can keep working for many more years or go back to work to support your grandchild. There are other options and you might find they fill you with guilt, but you need to consider if they could be better for your grandchild or in some cases great-grandchild. First, we’ll discuss the complications associated with raising your grandchild on your own and later in this blog we’ll explore the options that may be in the best interest of both your grandchild and you.
An estimated 920,000 American children are being raised by solo grandparents without a parent in the home according to a study performed in 2015 by Current Gerontology and Geriatrics Research and cited in an article by Deborah M. Whitley, Esme Fuller-Thomson, Sarah Brennenstuhl, “Health Characteristics of Solo Grandparent Caregivers and Single Parents: A Comparative Profile Using the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey” at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/09/150914152912. “Many solo grandparents are quite elderly, yet they are raising some of the nation’s most vulnerable children with shockingly limited resources,” said co-author Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor in Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and the Institute for Life Course & Aging. Twenty-five percent of solo grandparents are 70 or older. More than a 25% of these households report incomes of less than $15,000 annually and more than 33% are raising multiple children. Half of them are less than 12-years-old.
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Researchers at Georgia State University and the University of Toronto using the 2012 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System implemented by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed a sample of solo grandparents for 36 states and found that solo grandparent caretakers suffer more than single parents from poor physical and mental health and functional limitations. Co-author Deborah Whitley, a professor of social work in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies’ School of Social Work at Georgia State, said. “One in four solo grandparents reported they had diabetes and one in five had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma. One in six had a heart attack. With this level of illness, it is not surprising that 32 percent reported that their physical health was not good more than one week in the past month.”
LaShawnDa Pittman’s, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s Department of American Ethnic Studies, findings from a study of 77 African-American grandmothers living in the poorest areas of south Chicago were published in November 2015 in The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences. She found that African-American children are two times more likely to live with grandparents or other relatives than white and Hispanic children. Pittman said since the Great Recession, white grandparents are now the fastest-growing subset of grandparent-headed households. She found that the grandmothers, aged from 38 to 83, she interviewed had annual incomes of less than $15,000 even though more than 50% were employed. “Fifty-eight were raising children in informal arrangements and were ineligible for funding under the state child welfare system. Benefits available to parents were also often out of reach, and public assistance aimed at seniors was inadequate to cover the costs of childrearing.” Informal arrangements often occur when the parents won’t give up legal custody since they want to continue to see their children or receive welfare benefits illegally, but can’t or don’t want to care for them. Sometimes grandparents prefer this arrangement since they hope the child’s parents will be able to care for them if they’re currently unemployed, incarcerated, and/or suffer from mental illness or substance abuse, but their circumstance may improve in the future. Neither party wants to have the child in state custody since that can limit their ability to see the child, may put the child in an unsafe situation or could result in the state taking away custody due to abandonment.
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In most cases, the biological parent in the study either failed or refused to contribute to their children’s care. Some parents removed or attempted to remove their children from a grandparent’s care to get subsidized housing or resources for which children are eligible. Child care is another challenge. Grandparents need to quit working since child care is difficult to find, so it became necessary to rely on unemployment income and help from friends. Pittman said, “I was interviewing grandmothers who were raising grandchildren from recliners because they could barely get around,…I was talking to 40- and 50-year-olds who could barely walk, for a variety of reasons….Even though raising their grandchildren is really hard, they wouldn’t have it any other way.” She said, “One of the big things I heard was, ‘My grandbaby won’t end up in the system. If that means I’ve got to make these kinds of sacrifices, that’s just what it’s going to be.'” See more at “Safety net fails grandmother caregivers living in severe poverty” at https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/12/151217143518.htm.
During my years in education as a teacher and psychologist, I’ve seen many different ways of handling parenting if a child can’t care for their child and a grandparent has to take over their care. Here are a few of the ways that solo and married grandparents have managed the situation.
- Shared living arrangements where the parent lives with the grandparent and they both care for the child. The parent may retain custody or for legal reasons the grandparent may have custody. Sometimes this works well, but as with all relationships, problems arise if one person is providing most of the money and the home. It needs to be decided what the house rules are as they apply to financial and child raising decisions. It’s difficult enough if a child returns home alone, but other issues can cause tension when one or more children come with them.
- Separate living arrangements where the biological parent visits or takes the child on a regular basis. Sometimes the parent lives in the same area or in a different part of the world. As with shared living, this can occur due to work schedules, low income, physical or mental health issues, or alcohol or drug addictions which make it difficult or impossible for the parent to take care of the child.
- If the parents give up all legal custody or if the courts take their custody from them due to abandonment, grandparents may have sole custody and be responsible for all aspects of the child’s care. This gives them control over all of the decisions regarding the raising of their grandchildren with all of the problems that come along with it. Some grandparents adopt the child and never let them know they aren’t their biological mother or father. As they get older, questions about how old their parent is compared to those of their friends arise. Sometimes relatives and friends leak the secret and this may interfere with this solution leaving the child confused, hurt, and wanting to find or live with their birth mother and father. Even if a grandparent can afford to care for a child they should consider their own physical, emotional, and psychological capabilities. Single Baby Boomers know that they don’t have the patience they had when they were younger. Can they give up their retirement dreams to take their grandchild or children to ball practices, school activities, on vacations, and care for them when they both may be ill? If they do, is it what’s best for the child who could receive those things from younger parents?
- Adoption to another family, open, semi-open or private if parental rights are taken away from the parent and given to the grandparent, is an option. A grandparent may choose this if they feel it’s in their grandchild’s best interest.
An open adoption allows the grandparent and sometimes the biological parents and siblings the opportunity to be part of the child’s life. This continued association with their birth family can give them answers to their heredity and an understanding of why they’re not living with their biological parents.
A semi-open adoption may come in several different forms and is handled by a private agency. It’s similar to an open adoption, but the relationship typically involves the agency as an intermediary for ongoing contact. After child placement, many semi-open adoptions include mailing photos and letters between adoptive families and birth families through the agency to preserve confidentiality. Semi-open adoptions can later become an open adoption if all parties agree.
A closed adoption doesn’t allow the biological family access to the child, but may leave the door open for the child to find their parents when they’re legally old enough to search for their bio family.
These adoptions can be handled through a lawyer specializing in adoptions or a public or private agency.
Children who are adopted can suffer from separation anxiety-a condition, usually seen in young children when they’re separated from their parent, but which can manifest at any age if a person doesn’t understand why they’ve been given up by biological parents. Although this may occur, there’ve been numerous successful adoptions and this is just one factor to consider.
- Give up all legal rights and allow State Social Services to care for your grandchild. They may be adopted, put in a foster or group home. You may or may not be able to see them, but if they’re not adopted you can choose to parent them in the future if your circumstances change and you feel that you can care for them full-time. Before you choose this option you should research the ramifications of this decision for your grandchild, child, and you.
There are many other scenarios that have been implemented by grandparents trying to do what’s best for their grandchildren. None of them are perfect, but even nuclear families have their problems. Often single grandparents are taking care of their grandchild’s needs alone and are living on a lower income than couples. Every circumstance is different and the imperfect people involved must do their best to care for the child or give people who desperately want a child the gift of raising their grandchild. For further help with these issues, check out the resources listed below.
- AARP “Grandfact-state fact sheets for grandparents and other relative raising children” http://www.aarp.org/relationships/friends-family/grandfacts-sheets/
Each state fact sheet provides state-specific data, information and helpful links including census data, key state and local programs and resources, foster care policies and services, public benefits and financial assistance, education assistance, and state laws.
- AARP “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren-If you are just starting to care for a grandchild, these are the basic things you need to know” by Amy Goyer, August 31, 2011, http://www.aarp.org/relationships/friends-family/info-08-2011/grandfamilies-guide-getting-started.html
- “Grandparenting Today” Cooperative Extension University of Wisconsin Extension. http://fyi.uwex.edu/grandparenting/through-the-eyes-of-a-child/fact-sheets/
- Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Series – Series of articles covering topics such as reasons for your grandchild’s misbehavior and building strong families. (University of Florida IFAS Extension) http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_book_grandparents_raising_grandchildren
- Generations United – Grandfamilies – Free fact sheets and publications for grandparents raising grandchildren, including information about legal, financial, and support. (Generations United) http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/topic_book_grandparents_raising_grandchildren
Continue the adventure!