- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 4, 2002

Mary Jackson has a lot on her schedule.

She is raising money for 12-year-old Christopher's steel band. She is speaking with the youth league football coach, who wants to know if Christopher has permission to play. She is making sure 11-year-old Jonathan gets to tae kwon do practice and does his math homework. She is comforting 7-year-old D'Andre after a brotherly scuffle. She is making sure that 20-year-old Regina and 18-year-old Melanie grow into goal-oriented young women.

All of these children live with Mrs. Jackson and her husband, John, in the District, but the Jacksons are not busy parents; they are busy grandparents. The Jacksons, who have four grown children, are the full-time guardians for five grandchildren. They are raising the grandchildren because their two daughters, for various reasons, were unable to care for the children.

"It is my duty," says Mrs. Jackson, 61, a retired federal worker. "This is my flesh and blood. I was raised to look out for my family."

There are 4.5 million children who are growing up in households headed by grandparents, according to the 2000 census figures. That is a 30 percent increase since 1990.

However, grandparenting advocates say those numbers are a conservative estimate. Because of legal tangles, insurance issues and the hope that the arrangement is only temporary, many, many grandparent-headed households were not counted.

"Whatever number you see, it is an underestimate," says Sylvie de Toledo, co-author of the book "Grandparents as Parents: A Survival Guide to Raising a Second Family." Ms. de Toledo, a social worker, became an advocate on the topic as her parents raised her nephew after the death of her sister.

"So many families don't acknowledge they are really doing it or that it is a full-time basis," she says.

Ms. de Toledo points out that grandparents raising grandchildren is a reality that cuts across all racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. In most cases, the grandparents are responding to a crisis in the middle generation, such as death of a parent, incarceration, drug abuse or mental illness.

With a new child or children to raise come a host of feelings and issues, says Kathy Reynolds, a Connecticut woman who, along with her husband, is raising her 5-year-old granddaughter.

There may be guilt about where they "went wrong" with the child who is unable to parent. Mrs. Reynolds' daughter used drugs while pregnant, and the baby was born addicted.

"I went from guilt to shock and disbelief to anger," says Mrs. Reynolds, who is the editor of GrandsPlace.com, a support Web site for grandparents in her situation. "[My daughter] is a child I loved, too, but I had to make the decision between an adult who made [a] bad choice and a child who had made no choice. Then I came to accept the situation, and we have moved on from there."

However, with acceptance came lifestyle changes, says Mrs. Reynolds, 51. Raising a grandchild has meant financial concerns, work adjustments and fighting for health care coverage.

"I was working full time," she says, "but I had to quit when I realized she was here to stay. I now run a business from home. We have had legal issues. We have had to go to court. It is a definite lifestyle change, but my granddaughter is thriving. She is a great kid."

Working it out

Mrs. Reynolds and other families cannot help but run into legal and financial issues, says Amy Goyer, director of the AARP Grandparent Information Center. Some of the areas with which grandparents must contend:

• Legal

A biological relationship is not necessarily recognized as a legal one. In many states, grandparents who do not have legal custody cannot register a child for school.

"The majority of grandparents are caring for their grandchildren informally," Ms. Goyer says.

Other, more formal arrangements include foster grandparenting, in which grandparents are appointed caregivers after the children have been in the custody of state child protection services; temporary guardianship, which gives the grandparents custody and control of the child but requires the families to return occasionally to court; permanent guardianship, in which the grandparents have custody and control of the child but the parents retain visitation; and adoption, in which the parents' rights have been severed.

"It is best to have some legal protection," Ms. de Toledo says. "If it is not being contested, you can do it without an attorney."

Though many grandparents have temporary or permanent custody, some feel that their rights as responsible, caring adults are not being recognized adequately.

"Grandparents in this situation are not given the same respect or looked upon like foster parents," Ms. de Toledo says. "Sometimes they are looked upon as interfering or seen as somewhat responsible for screwing up their children in the first place."

Mrs. Reynolds has sole legal custody of her granddaughter. Her daughter, who visits weekly, has been off drugs for a year. Mrs. Reynolds predicts a court battle in the future as her daughter wants to try parenting again, and judges often return children to the custody of their biological parents.

"I still don't trust her decision-making skills," Mrs. Reynolds says of her daughter. "To me, a parent is there for the daily tasks of parenting."

Mrs. Reynolds says she would like to put an end to what she calls "layaway children."

"I would like to see a law in which you have two years to redeem yourself and reclaim your child or lose your rights," she says. "These children deserve the right to a safe and stable home. My granddaughter is now almost 6. She has friends, a school, a neighborhood here. I don't want to see that disrupted."

• Financial

Many grandparents thought they would have an easy retirement, but the addition of a young child changes everything. A grandparent raising a grandchild may be forced to return to work or may be forced to quit work to devote more time to the grandchild. Housing needs and grocery bills increase. Child care and health care might be huge expenses.

Nineteen percent of grandparents raising grandchildren live below the poverty level, according to the census data.

"Of course, it is a financial strain," Mrs. Jackson says. "I tried to put [the grandchildren] on my medical insurance when I was working, and the government wouldn't let us do it."

Eventually, Mrs. Jackson applied for Medicaid for the grandchildren.

There are financial assistance programs for grandparents. Welfare reform recently created Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), through which grandparents who meet certain criteria can receive subsidies.

"The financial issues are paramount," says Ms. Goyer, whose organization is advocating that the government increase the amount of money allocated for TANF. "This is a family pattern that is not going away. It is increasingly affecting AARP members."

Maryland is among five states participating in a pilot subsidized-guardianship program. If a grandparent can prove he or she has been providing a stable home for more than a year, he or she may be eligible for a subsidy.

• Emotional

"There are often many mixed feelings in this situation," says Nancy Sandler, a social worker with the Jewish Social Services Agency of Metropolitan Washington. Ms. Sandler heads a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren.

"Grandparents are dealing with their feelings about their own children, and then they are dealing with grandchildren who may be feeling the stress of being away from their biological parents," Ms. Sandler says. "Oftentimes you have kids who have witnessed and been part of a difficult situation at home and have some strong emotional needs."

Adds Ms. de Toledo: "Not only are you raising a child you didn't plan for, you may be raising a child with multiple problems. Many of these children are walking wounded. They have not had a good start in life. They may be anxious or insecure. Some of the people who were supposed to nurture them have left them, and they may have a tough time trusting anyone. They may have trouble relating to peers.

"Grandparents get this child," she says, "and it is like a jigsaw puzzle. You have to put the pieces together to make a happy, healthy human being."

That is why it is so important for grandparents to know what the grandchildren might be going through, Ms. de Toledo says. It is important that they provide a stable home life, predictable routine and supervision. They also should be on the lookout for behavioral problems.

Mrs. Reynolds had the challenge of bringing home a drug-addicted baby who now is a healthy first-grader.

Richard Miller, a Northern Virginia man who asked that his real name not be used, is always on guard for problems he may encounter with Andy, the 6-year-old grandson he is raising. Andy has some hearing loss and is being evaluated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

"Health care has been a nightmare," says Mr. Miller, a 55-year-old business consultant who purchased private insurance for his grandson. "He is happy living with me, but that doesn't mean he doesn't feel rejected and miss his mom. Andy will have issues down the road. My biggest concern is: Am I going to know what to do when he is 10 and I'm closing in on 100?"

The bottom line: Love

Raising a grandchild is almost never convenient, but many grandparents say rising to the task has given them a new focus and, hopefully, helped in what could be a desperate situation.

"The advantage to having a little kid around is remembering the priorities of family first," says Mr. Miller, who also has an 11-year-old daughter from another marriage who lives with him part time. Mr. Miller says he and his grandson like to ice-skate, ride bicycles and read "The Magic Treehouse" series of books together. They eat breakfast and dinner together every day.

"We definitely have a routine," Mr. Miller says. Still, he hopes his daughter, now in her mid-20s and visiting her son regularly, will mature enough to take a greater parenting role.

"My hope is that eventually the responsibility will be shared more," he says.

Mrs. Reynolds is hoping for the opposite. Her daughter is getting her act together, but Mrs. Reynolds feels it may be too little, too late.

"[My granddaughter] has bonded with my family," Mrs. Reynolds says. "This is the life she knows her house, her dog, her toys. I wish I could adopt her. At any time, my daughter may take me back to court."

Still, the grandparents look toward the future. There is no point in going over the past to see where things might have been different, they say.

"I have three daughters, and I taught them all about sex and drugs," Mrs. Reynolds says. "One of them chose this road. My children grew up in a little house in Connecticut with a mom who stayed home. This can happen anywhere."

Says Mr. Miller: "Raising a grandchild takes effort, but it is the right thing to do. Certainly I would have preferred my daughter get married and go to medical school, but that isn't what happened. I can't say [our situation] is easy. I have to give a lot, but I get a lot in return."

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