BY JAIA PETERSON, GENERATIONS UNITED
It takes a special kind of heroism and loving devotion to step up to the responsibility of raising children when their parents cannot. Our society owes a debt of gratitude to the millions of grandparents — maybe you’re one of them — who step up for a second tour of duty as voluntary caregivers in what are known as “kinship families” or “grandfamilies.”
“Tour of duty” isn’t precisely the right metaphor — but in some ways the term is apt, because the caregiving mission — guiding kids safely through their childhoods — is so important, and because there are so many perils to overcome and so much bravery required along the way.
“If you are among the many people in the U.S. caring for your grandkids, thank you!”
Grandparents who have done it don’t need to be told — the benefits and supports our society has built to meet children’s basic needs can be very hard to find when caregivers are not parents or legal guardians.
My organization, Generations United, has worked hard to highlight and tackle those challenges and to defend those who step up as caregivers in grandfamilies. If you are among the many people in the U.S. caring for your grandkids, thank you! And know that there are many advocates fighting for your rights and better policies and systems to support families like yours.
In December, we released our 2021 report on the state of grandfamilies in the United States. It contains a lot of difficult and distressing truths — grandfamilies simply aren’t considered nor supported adequately by our country’s family-support policies and systems, even as the pandemic has made existing inequities worse. For example, according to a study published in Pediatrics late last year, the pandemic has had a devastating effect on families with children. Between April 2020 and the end of June 2021, more than 140,000 children had lost a parent or grandparent caregiver to the virus, with a higher incidence of death among families of color. Life is already difficult for grandfamilies, and the pandemic has created many more of them. So, too, has the worsening epidemic of drug-overdose deaths.
Furthermore, as our report explains, child-welfare systems often don’t recognize — or willfully dismiss — the needs of grandfamilies. When children cannot be cared for by their parents, child welfare agencies routinely place children in the homes of relatives. But the agencies regularly fail to provide them the necessary support and services available to traditional foster parents.
“In some states, grandparents are eligible for caregiving services and supports — but great-grandparents are not.”
The majority of relatives raising others’ children are grandparents, but other relatives play this role, too, including great-grandparents, cousins, siblings, aunts, uncles, godparents, and close family friends. The specific relationship can affect the way they are treated and the services and supports they can access.
In some states, grandparents are eligible for caregiving services and supports — but great-grandparents are not. Sibling caregivers often struggle to convince child-welfare systems, schools, health care providers, and others that they are, in fact, raising their brothers and sisters, and need the same supports and information as otherkin caregivers. Single grandfathers and uncles and other male kin caregivers are often overlooked and skipped over in relative placement searches simply because they are men. And cousins, distant relatives, tribal members, godparents, and close family friends are often excluded from definitions of “relatives” for qualifying services.
We cannot ask grandparents to take on the responsibility of raising children without helping them to meet children’s basic needs in return or making the job of child-rearing even more difficult.
As Generations United and other advocates fight to get these harmful policies changed, there are things grandfamilies can do to fight for themselves. The web of support that grandfamilies weave, often in the wake of family trauma or emergency — may be makeshift and improvised. But it can also be very strong, and be made stronger by support from others.
Kim Merriman, 63, a grandfamily caregiver in Omaha, Neb., told this encouraging story in our report:
“At the beginning of the pandemic, my granddaughter, Paislee, whom I raise, was struggling with in-home school and having some behavior problems. I was concerned about her mental health. So, I called the school system, and they were a huge resource for us. Paislee got a speech therapist and mental health services to help with the trauma she’d lived through with her mom. We set up boundaries for Paislee, created job charts and I learned how to help her with schoolwork.”
Ms. Merriman added: “Still, it was so hard. I was at my wit’s end, when the woman from the school system, Cassie, said she had a referral for me to the Nebraska Children’s Home Society’s Raising Your Grandchildren program, a six-week training series that met online during the pandemic. Once I finished the series, I joined the program’s Ambassador Support Group, also on zoom. Some women had been meeting for years – the information I got at the first meeting was great, and it really made me want to keep going. Now, Paislee is doing much better and so am I. That one referral from the school system really changed my life.”
Ms. Merriman’s story is a real-life example of something we know to be true — that is confirmed by research. Children do better with grandfamilies than in families with non-kin. When the grandfamily receives services and supports, the children do even better.
If you or someone you know has stepped in to care for a grandchild or other relative’s child, reach out for support. Visit www.grandfactsheet.org to learn about kinship navigator programs, support groups, or other resources in your area. You have rights and there are people ready to help you get the services and support you and your family need.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – JAIA LENT
Jaia Peterson Lent is Deputy Executive Director of Generations United, a national organization dedicated to improving lives. Home to the National Center on Grandfamilies, Generations United is a leading voice for issues affecting families headed by grandparents or other relatives.
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