As family dynamics continually shift in response to social changes in this country, new interpretations of traditional family structure are constantly being explored. One of the fastest growing of these new family structures involves grandparents raising their grandchildren as a response to parent failure. The following contains quotes from an article in Newsweek magazine.
A Different Kind of Family
An entirely different kind of family is born when mothers are unable to care for their children. It’s often Grandma who comes to the rescue. Five years ago, Ruth Rench was looking forward to retirement. Her children had long since moved out of her house near Ft. Worth, and she was planning to travel, using the nest egg she built up during 25 years with the local school system.
That’s when Rench’s 3-year-old granddaughter gave her some chilling news: she had been molested by one of her mother’s male friends. It would not be the last time the girl was abused. Rench finally filed for custody of her granddaughter.
Two years and $25,000 later, Rench, now 65-years-old, finally won custody of her granddaughter, now 8-years-old. Ruth has joined a nationwide groundswell of grandparents who are stepping in to raise their children’s children. Rench and her granddaughter are one of 95 “skip-generation” families who belong to the Ft. Worth area chapter of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG).
The Skip Generation Phenomena
According to family-court judges, social workers and counselors, the skip-generation phenomenon is often linked to drug and alcohol abuse. The affected parents cannot or should not assume responsibility for their children. But the problem is not limited to families of the inner city, or even to drug users.
“Most of these grandparents are from good middle class families who have never had to face anything like this before,” says Ellen Hogan, 44. Hogan, who heads a 55-member Houston GRG group, and her husband, Harold, are in the middle of a court battle with their 23-year-old daughter over custody of their two grandchildren, ages 1 and 4.
“It’s happening to blue collar workers, white collar workers, blacks, whites, Latinos,” Ruth said. “It’s happening all over.”
Often frustrated by the expense and the legal hoops they must jump through to gain custody of neglected or abused grandchildren, many grandparents stand by helplessly as their grandchildren are shipped off to foster homes. Others simply take on the child-rearing burden without legal custody. They may start on an informal basis by watching the grandchildren on the weekends or while the parents are at work. Gradually, the time the children spend with them is extended as parents lose control of their lives through drugs, financial difficulties or extreme self-absorption.
The situation may go on for years until suddenly the mother decides she wants her child back, often to increase her welfare payments. “It often ends up in court,” says one family counselor. “Sometimes amicably, sometimes not.”
Long term effects
Psychiatrists and psychologists are just beginning to look at the long-term emotional effects skip-generation rearing has on children. California social worker Sylvie de Toledo has spent the last two years working with such families in programs she started at the Psychiatric Clinic for Youth in Long Beach and the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center in Los Angeles.
Though skip-generation grandparents and parents suffer great emotional strain during these crises, it is the children who are at greatest risk. They often do poorly in school, defy authority, have problems making friends and exhibit physical aggressiveness or feelings of isolation.
“It is critical that the children be helped to understand that they are blameless,” de Toledo emphasized. Although these children are quite attached to their grandparents, she explains, they have a profound sense of abandonment, loss and rejection by their parents. “They worry consciously or unconsciously that they may once again be abandoned.” One of these childrens’ greatest fears is that their grandparents may get sick or die, leaving them with no one else to turn to.
Grandmothers like Ruth Rench sacrifice their own needs and plans to provide their grandchildren with that precious sense of security and love that is every child’s birthright. They are also struggling to keep their grandkids from perpetuating a dangerous cycle. “All I can do now is give my granddaughter all the moral and spiritual training she needs and hope she doesn’t grow up to repeat the destructive pattern of behavior she was born into,” says Rench.