By Brian Goslow
The three sets of grandparents who turned out on a January evening while the region prepared for a blizzard were already experts in thawing out chilly conditions: They had adopted their grandchildren with the hope of providing a stability the children wouldn’t otherwise have.
While the story of their efforts — and successes — are heartwarming, there have been, and continue to be, endless challenges, including keeping their grandchildren’s parents — their own offspring — involved in the children’s lives as much as possible, even though the birth parents have proven unable to play the parent role.
At times, these grandparents feel alone in their plight. That’s why they attend the monthly Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group held at Worcester’s downtown YWCA. Children’s Friend, Inc., the Family Caregiver Support Program of Elder Services of Worcester Area, Inc. and the YWCA jointly support the program.
“It’s being with others who’ve been through similar experiences and sharing the experiences we’ve gone through with them,” said Ross Gibson, 52, who, along with his wife, Jean, 54, are raising their granddaughter, Kaya, 3. “We’ve gotten to know the family court system and lawyers quite well over the past four years.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau American FactFinder, as of 2009, 2.7 million of the nation’s grandparents are in charge of raising that grandchild.
In Massachusetts, 107,250 grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren.
Acknowledging the need these families have for guidance, the Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs released the fourth edition of A Resource Guide for Massachusetts’ Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren in conjunction with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services and modified with the help of the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate in 2009.
The guide noted that complex situations face grandparents raising their grandchildren and that the social phenomenon “is not isolated to any particular racial or ethnic group, geographical location or economic circumstance.”
Often a child’s need for new guardianship is the result of drug and alcohol use that leaves the parents unable to look after the child. Other causes include parents in the military, physical or mental illness, incarceration, teen pregnancy, death and abandonment.
“Sometimes the biological parents are in their children’s life, sometimes they’re not,” said Lourie August, a social worker for the Arlington Council on Aging. August has overseen the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group that meets on the second Tuesday of the month at the Arlington Senior Center for the past 11 years. “There’s always some kind of issue: cognitive development, substance abuse, personality disorder — it adds another layer for the grandparent to deal with,” she said.
Ages of the Arlington participants range from grandparents in their 50s to a great-grandmother in her 80s raising her great-grandchild. “The reason they keep coming is they just love being able to talk to others in the same boat,” August said. Most are single grandmothers. “Here they are with seniors like them; their other peers are retiring with leisure time and have other concerns and agendas while they are going to pick up their grandchildren from school and then in the playgrounds watching the children play.”
Joe, 68, and Susan Jones, 61, who attend the Worcester group, have found it hard to find other children to play with Sam, their ADHD-diagnosed 9-year-old grandson (to protect their grandson, the couple asked that their real names not be used).
“It’s a struggle, but we continue to make progress,” Joe Jones said. “He’s tough, but he has a heart of gold.” The Joneses adopted Sam when he was four after it became clear their daughter, while loving her child “tremendously,” was incapable of raising him. “What we haven’t been able to provide for him yet, are children to play with,” said Sam’s grandfather. He wants to be with others his age but doesn’t get calls to play. It kind of breaks your heart.” Sam’s teachers, however, report that his classmates like him in school.
Sam’s ADHD can cause him to have trouble focusing in unorganized settings. Scouts “is a horror show” and soccer “not so good.” But in his karate classes, which are heavily structured, Sam listens to his instructor. It’s a positive trait that’s been noted in children with behavioral problems and could lead to long-range success.
The Joneses get support from programs at Sam’s school as well as other professional sources; it was during counseling at Children’s Friend that it was suggested they could benefit from attending the support group.
“The problem is we don’t have a big family to give us a break,” Susan Jones said. “He can stay with his mother for short periods of time, but the most difficult part is getting a break. Maybe we could use respite for us, but not because of any bad behavior on his part — just to get away for a week without having to worry about him. Even then I’d be nervous about finding out how he was doing.”
Sam’s grandmother said he adores his grandfather. “To him, anything he does is wonderful,” she said. “He’s got tons of hobbies and our grandson is the same way. If grandpa picks up wood, he wants to pick up wood too. He’s got a lot of interests, the little kid. It’s a big strength with him. He’s got a lot of potential.”
Cynthia Williamson, who oversees the Worcester group, noted that “Every child is a handful,” regardless of family background and emotional make-up.
Each grandparents meeting features a guest speaker to explain another part of the support system that exists for grandparents who find themselves parents again — sometimes while still trying to assist their own children.
“Services are available for all ages,” said Richard B. Breault, director of Child Adolescent Services for Central Mass. for the Mass. Department of Mental Health. That includes programs of respite for families.
He suggested those raising grandchildren and children with emotional problems look into programs provided through the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL), an organization that advocates for children with mental, emotional or behavior special needs and their families. “Everyone is eligible for it,” Breault said.
A Child Advocate bill signed into law in Massachusetts in 2008 created the Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. The commission’s goal is to foster unity among grandparents and supportive communities and organizations. It also is a liaison between government and private interest groups, advising executive and legislative bodies on the potential effect of proposed legislation and identifying issues that face relatives, other than parents, who are raising children. It recently completed a series of statewide listening sessions.
“The issues that are important to this group of ‘parents’ are unique and they frequently feel alone,” said Dr. Ellen Braaten, a Boston psychologist, director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) and author of How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child (American Psychological Association).
“Being with other grandparents who are dealing with similar issues can be very empowering and comforting. For instance, grandparents have often experienced a loss which has put them in the position where they are having to parent their grandchild,” she said. “The losses can range from the death of their child to having a child who is incapable of functioning in the role of a parent — often due to mental or physical illness or drug or alcohol abuse.”
The Gibsons decided to raise their grandchild when it became apparent neither of her biological parents was capable of taking care of her. “At the time of Kaya’s birth, it was both parents’ wish that we would take custody of their child; otherwise, she’d go into DSF (Department of Children and Families) care,” Ross Gibson said.
In Massachusetts, a grandparent can petition the probate court for temporary or permanent custody. “In our case, we hired a lawyer who suggested we seek permanent custody because temporary custody is only for three months at a time and would have to be repeatedly refiled,” said Ross Gibson.
“We got custody three days before she was born. It helped that we had the consent of the parents. The judge knew it was us or DSF because we didn’t know if the parents would turn their lives around.” If they did, they wouldn’t have a home for the child or the assets to raise her. “We had the means of taking on another child,” he said.
While the Gibsons have permanent custody of Kaya, with it looking more and more likely that her biological parents will never be ready to play a leading role in her life, they’re now considering adopting her. “She’s starting to ask who’s my mom and dad?” Ross Gibson said. “As far as we’re concerned, she’s our blood, she’s our daughter. Yes, we’re a little older and creakier, but if you’re giving unrequited love, it doesn’t matter if you’re 52 or 22.”
Kaya’s smile is all the Gibsons need to know they’ve made the right decision.
And even though they recognize a dozen years from now, instead of looking at retiring, they’ll be starting to think about sending Kaya to college, they have no regrets.
“She’s on track, healthy and going to preschool,” Ross Gibson said, “and a joy, a treat and a blessing to have in our life.”
For more information: Worcester Support Group for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren: 508-756-1545; Arlington Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Support Group, call Lourie August at 781-316-3410; Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL), ppal.net or call 617-542-7860 or 866-815-8122 (Boston) or 508-767-9725 (Worcester); A Resource Guide for Massachusetts’ Grandparents Raising Their Grandchildren: www.mass.gov/Eelders/docs/caregiver/grandparents_raising_grand
children.pdf; AARP Grandparenting, aarp.org/relationships/grandparenting.