- Associated Press - Friday, October 31, 2014

HARVEYVILLE, Kan. (AP) - Donna and Buddy Smallwood thought their years of raising small children were over. Then they received a phone call about 2 1/2 years ago from a social worker.

Their three grandchildren had been taken into protective custody and placed in a foster home after their father - the Smallwoods’ son - was shot in his home while the children were there.

The social worker was looking for a family member who would step up and be responsible for the children’s welfare. The oldest grandchild - Billy Don, now 8 - told the social worker to call his grandmother, The Topeka Capital-Journal (https://bit.ly/1wzGr2b ) reported.

“They’d lived with us off and on throughout their lives,” said Donna, 58, who teaches computer skills at Stoney Point North Elementary School in Kansas City, Kansas.

While the Smallwoods underwent background checks and home studies, the children stayed in the foster home. It was two months before the couple could bring Billy Don and his siblings - Andrew, now 6, and Lilianna, now 3 - to their Harveyville farm.

A few months later, the Smallwoods received another call from a social worker. The children’s mother had given birth to a baby girl and was unable to care for her. After a trip to Walmart to get diapers and formula, the couple welcomed 5-day-old Paityn - now a 1-year-old - into their home, too.

Life for the Smallwoods has changed forever. They no longer meet after work in Topeka to dine at their favorite restaurants. Personal interests or hobbies have taken a back seat.

Their days typically start at 5:30 a.m. with getting the boys ready for school, the girls ready for day care and themselves ready for work, and wind down with the children in bed at 8 p.m. and hopefully asleep an hour later.

“Whatever life we had before (is gone). Our life is now their life,” said Buddy, 59, west office manager for the Harveyville Seed Co.

The Smallwoods are among the growing number of grandparents and other relatives who are finding themselves parenting the second time around.

Kansas has 35,274 children living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives, according to the Kansas Department for Children and Families. About 30 percent of the children in foster care in Kansas are being cared for by relatives. In most instances, the relative is a grandparent.

“It is always our goal to keep children in their homes when it is safe to do so,” DCF secretary Phyllis Gilmore said. “When that is not possible, grandparents often provide a safe and loving alternative to reduce the trauma of children being removed from their home.”

B.J. Gore, supervisor of the Parents Helping Parents groups at the Kansas Children’s Service League, said about 95 percent of children who are living with grandparents or other relatives have been removed from the home, in part, because of parental alcohol and/or drug abuse.

Other common reasons include homelessness, death or illness of a parent, child abuse or neglect, incarceration and domestic violence.

In addition to maintaining familial bonds, Gore said, placement in a grandparent’s home allows for the continuation of the family’s culture, which is key to the child’s identity.

Gore said grandparents who find themselves parenting again face several challenges, including:

- Changing roles from an affectionate grandparent to a parent who provides structure and discipline.

Gore said the stress and strain associated with the changing dynamics of the family can erode the grandparents’ relationship and cause friction between the grandparents and their adult children or other grandchildren.

“It really does affect the whole family,” she said.

- Legal concerns. Gore said grandparents need to obtain legal documents stating they have temporary guardianship so they can enroll the children in school and make decisions regarding their care.

- Physical and emotional well-being. Raising young and teenage children takes energy, and oftentimes grandparents become over-tired and neglect their own health, Gore said. The grandchildren may need special services or therapy to come through the trauma they have experienced, and the grandparents may need counseling or support to adapt to their changing roles.

The grandparents also may blame themselves for the actions of their adult children that led to the grandchildren being removed from the home and wonder what they did wrong during past child-rearing.

“It’s important for them to take the burden off themselves,” she said.

- Additional financial responsibility. A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture report indicated middle-income parents will spend $245,340 on average to raise a child born in 2013 until that child turns 18.

Donna Smallwood said KVC Kansas provides $125 per child every six months for clothing and pays the day care costs for Lilianna and Paityn, which run about $370 a week. In the past, the Smallwoods received $166 a month from the Women, Infants and Children program to purchase formula, with the couple paying $30 a month out of pocket. They currently spend about $60 a month for diapers and baby wipes.

Since they have taken the children into their home, the Smallwoods’ grocery bill has increased and other expenses, such as school supplies, baby-sitting costs and fees for the boys to play sports, have stretched their budget thin.

The Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services provides support to grandparents serving as parents through its Relatives as Parents Program.

RAPP offers support groups and referrals to community resources, such as legal services, day care, emergency food, recreational activities for children and financial, housing and medical assistance.

“We don’t have financial assistance available to them, but we can refer to agencies that do,” said Sharon Dabzadeh, program manager for RAPP.

Dabzadeh said she doesn’t document how many calls RAPP receives each year, the type of requests callers have or how she has been able to help them.

“I got five to six calls last week from people needing information,” she said, adding callers typically don’t share their names or other personal information.

RAPP closely works with other community-based agencies, including Kansas Families and Schools Together Inc., which establishes partnerships among families, schools and communities to support the educational success of children; Families Together Inc., which serves families of children and youths with disabilities or special health care needs; and Kansas Children’s Service League, which works to prevent child abuse, strengthen families and empower parents.

In addition, Dabzadeh serves as the contact person for a free, confidential Kinship Networking group offered by KCSL from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month. The group provides encouragement and information about child development and community resources.

Back at the Smallwood farm, Billy Don’s and Andrew’s clothes and legs show the signs of playing outside in the dirt. Lilianna asks if she can have some candy and is disappointed when her grandparents say no, and Paityn crawls on the floor.

The Smallwoods know they face the possibility of raising their grandchildren until they reach adulthood. By the time the baby is 18 years old, they will be in their mid-70s. But they say that is better than the alternative of returning the children to their birth parents.

After being convicted of drug and weapon offenses and serving several months in a correctional facility, the children’s father is unemployed and living in Harveyville. Their mother was convicted of aggravated battery following a home invasion in March 2013 that involved beating the occupant of an apartment with a baseball bat. She is now in the Shawnee County jail on two probation violations and a bench warrant.

“We are a temporary placement at this point,” Donna said. “We will adopt before we give them to anyone else.”

Buddy’s eyes fill with tears and he finds it hard to speak as he looks over at Paityn toddling toward him with a big smile on her face. The child has known no other home and no other parents.

“The benefit is, we get to spend time with her,” he said, choking back his emotions. “I love her to pieces.”

___

Information from: The Topeka (Kan.) Capital-Journal, https://www.cjonline.com

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