- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 23, 2002

Golden Pettyjohn, a retired Prince George's County schools employee, did not expect to be raising children after age 50.
"There are times when I wonder, 'Why do I do this?' But I deal with it. I love them to death. I wouldn't take a million dollars for either one of them," says Mr. Pettyjohn, the only parent Demetria, 12, and Kevin, 5, have ever known.
He has a 5-by-7 studio photo of his granddaughter, Demetria, readily available for display, and he brags about the progress his grandson, Kevin, is making with computer learning games.
Mr. Pettyjohn is petitioning the court for joint custody of his 17-month-old granddaughter Myounna, who showers him with cries of "Papa, Papa" as he enters the room. He will return to court on this matter April 22, after failing to get a ruling on March 12.
Mr. Pettyjohn's grandchildren are three of 16,723 children in the District, or 14.5 percent, who live in grandparent-headed households the highest percentage in the nation, according to the 2000 Census. About 4.5 million children, or 6.3 percent, live in grandparent-headed households nationwide, and about a third of those households, such as Mr. Pettyjohn's, have no parent present.
It has been hard for Mr. Pettyjohn, a widower, to handle the unexpected financial and family roles alone, but he has seen firsthand what can happen if he does not.
His three grandchildren are first cousins of Brianna Blackmond, the 23-month-old toddler killed by her godmother in January 2000.
Mr. Pettyjohn clearly remembers the February night 12 years ago when his daughter, then 17, walked out and left 1-week-old Demetria in his care.
"She said, 'I didn't get you nothing for Valentine's Day, so you can have her,'" he says. "I thought it was a joke. She left, and it was about four or five months before I saw her again."
Demetria's father is incarcerated, so Mr. Pettyjohn started taking care of the child full time. When he saw his daughter again, he made her sign a notorized agreement relinquishing custody of the girl.
Like many grandparents, Mr. Pettyjohn struggled initially, doing odd jobs when he could find them. An upstairs neighbor would baby-sit Demetria for him during the day, but balancing the demands of work and home were difficult. Leisure time was out of the question.
"It cut everything off for me, I couldn't go out with the fellas," he says.
Trying to raise an infant on his disability retirement pension nearly broke him. The cost of clothes, diapers and baby formula made it nearly impossible to pay rent.
On top of that, he didn't know about social programs designed to assist people on low incomes.
"I didn't know nothing," he says looking off into space, his voice trailing off.
Then he met Ernestine King.
One day Miss King, manager of an apartment complex on Benning Road, got a call from the manager at Mr. Pettyjohn's complex.
"I have a good resident that's paying market rent," Miss King remembers him saying. "He's raising his grandchild, and he can't pay. I don't want to put him out. What can you do for him?"
She got Mr. Pettyjohn into her complex under Section 8 rental assistance and helped him apply for social programs that would give him a modest stipend for caring for the child.
At about the time Demetria turned 7 and was beginning to walk to school with her friends, Mr. Pettyjohn got a phone call from Greater Southeast Hospital. His daughter, who called him once a year mostly when she needed money had given birth to a son.
"They called me, next of kin, and asked if I wanted him," Mr. Pettyjohn says. "They said when she went into labor a crack pipe fell out of her pocket."
At first he didn't want the baby, who was born addicted to cocaine. Worse, Mr. Pettyjohn had no money to pay for the boy's rehabilitation.
But Demetria pleaded with him to change his mind.
"I'll help with him," he remembered her saying. "Papa, don't leave my little brother in the hospital."
That was all it took. Mr. Pettyjohn consented and a judge provided a court order cutting the red tape so the baby's rehabilitation would be paid for if Mr. Pettyjohn became his guardian.
In 1998, Mr. Pettyjohn won custody of Kevin. He says he asked if the judge could issue an order preventing his daughter from having more children. The judge told him it would be a violation of her civil rights.
Between Demetria and Kevin, Mr. Pettyjohn's daughter had three more children by two other men. One child lives with his father and two others live with their father's parents.
In August, he got another surprise.
A social worker brought 9-month-old Myounna to the apartment complex where Mr. Pettyjohn lived. Myounna's mother had been arrested and the child was found in an apartment malnourished, with undersized clothes and two diapers.
"I love the little girl, but there was just no way I could take care of her," Mr. Pettyjohn says.
In 2000, he had moved to another complex managed by Miss King, who gave him a job in the laundry room.
Mr. Pettyjohn says he was haunted by the image of Brianna in a 2-foot casket, bruises still visible on her little body. She was killed by her godmother in the home she shared with Mr. Pettyjohn's stepdaughter, Charrisise in January 2000.
The godmother, Angela T. O'Brien was sentenced in January to 19 years in prison.
That is when Miss King stepped in again. The complex manager, a grandmother herself at 55, had been a product of the D.C. child welfare "system" until age 5 and didn't want the child to be separated from her family.
"I said, 'I'll take her.' I guess he thought I was playing, but the mother instinct came out in me."
Together, they share the responsibilities of raising the three children. They plan to petition the court for joint custody of Myounna. Mr. Pettyjohn doesn't have a car, so Miss King drives the children to doctor's appointments. They share the costs of baby supplies, and sit in as baby sitters for each other.
The biggest difference, they say, between their first round as parents and the second round is now they are raising little consumers.
"They made a new model," Mr. Pettyjohn jokes. "The late-model kids, they want everything they see."
Demetria got a pair of $80 Nike shoes for her birthday last month. Her tastes tend toward designer clothes, not so much for herself but for her little sister.
Mr. Pettyjohn says that when he can he indulges her.
"I don't want her to feel left out," he says. "I'm not going to buy her everything she wants, but she's not going to feel left out."
Even factoring in the costs and the lack of free time, Mr. Pettyjohn says he never regrets taking in the children.


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