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Posted on June 16, 2012 by Christine Crosby in 

When Parents Fail

Since the dawn of the human species, grandparents were an integral part of the family system. One of their most important functions was caring for the young while parents were out hunting and/or gathering food.

In the latter half of the 20th century, this reality changed. Grandparents were no longer seen as essential figures in raising the young. Societal attitudes and physical distance sheared elders away from their natural place within the family. The grandparent-less “nuclear” family remained, limited to Mom, Dad and the children, or the single parent family.

Disenfranchised Grandparents

These disenfranchised grandparents were ignored or derided. Elders once revered by society were no longer respected by younger generations. Children were cared for by paid strangers in daycare centers. Many youngsters became “latch key” children who were left to fend for themselves until Mom or Dad returned from work at the end of the day. Cast away from the family hearth, elders and grandparents became confused about their role in society and even their self-worth.

Back Where they Belong

It seems, though, that in the beginning of the 21st century this trend is coming to an end. The nuclear family model just does not work in today’s society. Because of the tough economy, the rise in drug abuse and the high divorce rate, grandparents are returning to the family fold to help raise their grandchildren.

The Grandparents Visitation Rights movement also served as an important catalyst for change by enacting legislation that enabled grandparents access to their grandchildren when families were broken up.

For those grandparents who are given the opportunity to raise their grandchildren, many see it as a blessing. For others, it is a necessary burden undertaken when their own children fail in their duties as parents. For a grandparent who has already raised one family, taking on another can be time consuming, costly and physically taxing. Although saddened and angered by the inability of their own child to be an effective parent, these elders are all aware that they are saving their grandchild’s life.

Whatever road brings grandparents to this situation in life, many say it has given new meaning to their later years. They are re-entering a world they had left behind; a world of school, homework, sports events, birthday parties, and children’s entertainment. Some grandparents claim they have lost some of their own friends because they no longer share the same world. Some grandparents express concern about their own health or even death and the impact it will have on their grandchild.

On the other hand, elders make new friends at the many social activities they now participate in with their grandchildren. Elders who retired and began to live quiet, sedentary lives are now reawakened and feel more energetic. Some have even related they feel “transformed” by the experience. “I’ve got to keep up with Krystal,” a grandmother stated.

Society is Slow to Support Grandparent’s Efforts

Grandparents who raise their grandchildren usually feel good about what they are doing. They are showing society the power and influence of their role. But even though grandparents have now once again found an important place within the modern family system, society is slow to acknowledge their efforts. Grandparents who raise their grandchildren receive little support, and no legal or financial recognition. Grandparents who do not have legal custody and who serve as the sole caretaker of their grandchildren, have to pay for the child’s support and education on their own. States offer financial support for parents and foster parents, but not for grandparents.

Government agencies responsible for dealing with abandoned children are negligent in seeking counsel from grandparents when it comes to making decisions about a child’s welfare. Indeed, federal agencies have sidestepped grandparents willing to raise their own grandchild and instead placed the grandchild in foster care. With no social status or legal rights, a grandparent’s ability to provide a sense of family continuity for their parentless grandchild is tenuous at best.

When Parents are Ill.

Sylvie De Toledo, LCSW – the founder of Grandparents As Parents (GAP), a support system in California for grandparents raising grandchildren – says that sometimes parents who are drug addicts reclaim their children from the grandparents once they are in remission from their drug problem. When their drug abuse begins again, however, they often abandon the children. Many children express sadness and anger about being taken from their grandparents before their parent is truly cured and ready to responsibly assume the parenting role. However, without any legal status, grandparents are powerless to step in and help their grandchildren. They are too often relegated to the sidelines, a helpless witness of the pain and turmoil caused by the parent’s drug abuse.

Should grandparents be given permanent custody of a grandchild when parents are abusing drugs? The answer hinges on a primary factor: the parent must be capable of healing, and becoming stable and dedicated enough to responsibly parent their child. It takes time for a substance abuser to go through this process. In the meantime, what happens to the child?

Barbara Kirkland, a pioneer in the grandparent caretaker movement, feels that if parents aren’t available to take care of their children themselves, “arrangements should be made for the children to get on with their lives and not remain in limbo. Without permanency their lives are similar to those of children in foster homes. All children deserve a future of belonging.”

Children Need a Future of Belonging

Parents cannot be permanently banished from the hearts and minds of their children, and the grandparent must be supportive in helping their grandchild work through these issues. This demands a great deal of flexibility and love on the part of the grandparent. Especially when, for example, a formerly abusive parent who is now healed returns to the family.

If a child needs a parent, it’s of little import what name a parentless child gives their grandmother and grandfather. No newcomers to the position, this is not the first time around for grandparents. They are, after all, grandPARENTS. The most important feeling they can give their grandchildren is the security in knowing that their grandparents are there for them permanently and whenever they may need them.

After the custody papers were signed, a granddaughter said to her grandmother, “Grandma, can I go to school tomorrow and tell them I am going to have a real Mom now?”

Christine Crosby

About the author

Christine is the co-founder and editorial director for GRAND Magazine. She is the grandmother of five and great-grandmom (aka Grandmere) to one. She makes her home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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