- The Washington Times - Friday, May 31, 2002

RICHMOND Lynda and Brian Smith had no choice but to take in their granddaughter.
By the age of 7, Kayla had learned to cook for herself as her drunken mother slept in. She had spent some time living with a friend of her mother's who she says beat her. Finally, she was abandoned at the house of her mother's boyfriend and his mother in Daytona Beach, Fla.
When she came to Virginia, Kayla couldn't read or write and was hyperactive and traumatized. For the Smiths, it was both a financial and emotional strain.
"I had to go on medication. I had a nervous breakdown. I was very depressed," said Mrs. Smith,who lives in Chesterfield County.
She felt alone. But the numbers show otherwise.
According to figures released by the U.S. census, 140,000 grandparents in Virginia live in households with at least one grandchild younger than 18. Of these, 59,464, or 42.5 percent, are responsible for their care. Comparable figures were not available for 1990.
Most of them appeared to be concentrated in large urban areas, especially Hampton Roads, where 15,667 grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren, and the Richmond-Petersburg area, with about 8,264 such grandparents. Fairfax County followed with 4,572 grandparents as primary caregivers.
Experts say that in the majority of cases, substance abuse on the part of the parents is to blame. Other reasons include divorce, unemployment, child abuse and neglect, parents in prison, mentally ill parents, teen-agers getting pregnant and the death of a parent.
For the grandparents, the sudden responsibility often results in stress, resentment toward their children, financial concerns and worrying about their grandchildren's well-being.
"Imagine yourself on a Tuesday night and you have to work the next morning, and the police knock at the door with these children," said Amy Goyer, coordinator of the AARP's grandparents information center. "You may have emptied your nest and suddenly it's being filled again."
Virginia also is one of several states that do not offer guardianship subsidies to relatives raising children, leaving financially strapped grandparents with fewer options.
Sen. Yvonne Miller, Norfolk Democrat, introduced legislation in the 2002 General Assembly to provide guardianship subsidies for grandparents and other relatives caring for children.
But legislators facing a lean budget continued the bill to next year. She was out of town this week and did not immediately return several phone calls to her office.
States that provide guardianship subsidies for grandparents and other relatives include Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia and North Carolina, as well as the District, said Claire Hushbeck, a senior legislative representative in state affairs with AARP.
The Virginia Department for the Aging offers limited financial assistance to grandparents over 60 for instance, to help them pay for after-school programs but younger grandparents aren't eligible.
"The problem is that in our multigenerational society, you have grandparents in their 50s and younger who are raising grandchildren," said Bill Peterson, the department's deputy commissioner for programs.
Some grandparents get assistance through the federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families program, which replaced welfare.
Troy Archie, a 51-year-old single grandmother, gets $250 a month from TANF to help with the expense of raising two grandchildren a 12-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. But the money is "barely enough for groceries," said Miss Archie, who works as an emergency dispatcher in Richmond.
"Having to pay for day care after 20 years really broke me," she said.
Her daughter was a single mother stationed in Texas with the U.S. Army when Mrs. Archie got a call from her daughter's commanding officer about eight years ago. He said her daughter, Merrie, had had a mental breakdown.
"She had ended up in a shelter with the children," Mrs. Archie said. "He said I needed to come and get the children."
Her daughter is now back in the Richmond area and working as a cook. She has another child a 3-year-old boy whom she cares for.
Unlike some people in similar situations, Mrs. Archie doesn't need to worry about fighting her daughter in court.
"Merrie doesn't want custody of the kids, because she knows they're well taken care of," Miss Archie said.
Eva and Dan Nicholas of Chesterfield County aren't so fortunate.
Their daughter recently filed a petition for specified visitation after what the Nicholases say were scheduling conflicts that resulted in their daughter not seeing her children now 6, 8 and 10 years old several times in a row.
The Nicholases have been caring for their grandchildren for the past four years, and Eva Nicholas said the children had been abused.
And the Nicholases are finding it hard not to resent their daughter.
"We're tired," said Eva Nicholas, who is a 47-year-old diabetic.
"The authorities need to require more from parents," Dan Nicholas, 52, said. "Parental rights are not always as sacred as people make them out to be."

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