San Francisco Bay View, 2-19-98

New Solutions For Grandparents Raising Their Own Grandchildren

By Max Millard

In the early 1980s, two simultaneous catastrophes -- the crack cocaine explosion and the AIDS epidemic -- hit America's cities with tidal force, creating new social problems that lawmakers and public agencies are still struggling to address.

One unforeseen development over the past decade is the estimated 35 to 40 percent growth in the number of grandparents who have been forced to assume the role of parents to their own grandchildren. The grandparent-headed family with minor children is so common today that more than 300 support groups have been formed nationwide to help grandparents deal with their legal, financial and psychological challenges. California is among a handful of states leading the way, providing model agencies for the rest of the nation.

Grandparents Who Care, founded at San Francisco General Hospital in 1989, has expanded rapidly while evolving to include other relative care-givers, particularly aunts and uncles. It is now part of the Kinship Support Network, which serves almost 300 families throughout the city. A majority of the clients are African American.

Based at the Edgewood Center for Children and Families at One Rhode Island Street in the South of Market area, the Kinship Support Network does outreach in schools to locate relative care-givers through their children, then sends community workers to the homes to determine individual needs.

Among its many programs, it offers educational workshops, child tutoring, transportation, recreational activities for both children and their care-givers, and support groups that meet regularly in five neighborhoods, including Bayview Hunters Point. Virtually everything is free, thanks to a combination of public funding and private grants.

The immaculate and spacious headquarters close to downtown San Francisco includes a large indoor play area for young children, a computer room for teenagers, and storage rooms filled with emergency food and clothing for families in need.

Josephine Grant, the program director of Grandparents Who Care, told this reporter during a tour of the premises, "First of all, we must let our grandmothers and relative care-givers know that they're not alone in their situation. We found out in the beginning that they were so isolated."

Ruby Tucker, a 61-year-old grandmother who works as an emergency response worker for the Edgewood Center, has been raising her three grandchildren since 1990, when their father was murdered and their mother felt incapable of keeping them. Tucker learned about the Grandparents Who Care support group through the principal at her grandchildren's school.

"When I found that other people were having similar problems, I started to get my self-esteem back, just knowing that someone was there for me, and they would listen to whatever I had to talk about -- the grieving, and the reaching out, and the advice I needed," she said.

The mother of 10 grown children, Tucker admitted that teenagers today, including the three now sharing her home, are "totally different" from the earlier generation she raised.

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"They have their own ways. They've been drug-affected and they're more hyper than the ones who weren't exposed. It's hard to contain them because they move all the time. Some are never still. ... Since I got my grandchildren, I've aged almost 30 years."

But, she added, "I know the Lord intended me to take care of these children, and I wouldn't have it any other way."

Former San Francisco Supervisor Willie B. Kennedy, 74, became the sole care-giver for two of her great-grandchildren when they were age 5 and 7, and raised them for nine months.

"I guess in the beginning, one thinks it's going to be difficult. But once you start doing it, it becomes just a routine thing to do. However, it did put a strain on me, because I wasn't used to laundry and ironing and cooking every day. I had to take them to school and pick them up every day," said Kennedy, who now works for the Transition Development Corporation, which is helping to convert the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard to civilian use.

"I felt young enough to do it, but I had to curtail my activities, because I was still on the board of supervisors when I took them," she said. "I think the problem with most grandparents is that most of them are retired on a low, fixed income. The system is so archaic, when a stranger gets more money for taking care of your grandchildren than the family members, because [the government] feels that it's part of the family responsibility."

The problems would be easier to address, she believes, "if you had all the programs in one building, so you wouldn't have to run all over town to get the services you needed. For some reason these agencies don't want to be together. ... The communication about what the city has to offer does not filter down to the various communities."

She agreed that black families have a high rate of grandparenting than the rest of society, and attributed it to "a love for families and trying to keep your family together. I think it's something we have inherited from slavery, because people were sold off. So we have that inner desire to keep our children. So it has just come down with us, as something that you just do. And you don't even think about it. ... I have 16 great-grandchildren. If I had to, I'd keep them all."

Lenora Madison Poe, Ph.D., the facilitator of Grandparents as Parents, a support group in Oakland that has been meeting since 1988, pointed out, "When I started my research over 10 years ago, these families were not recognized. The feelings were that when grandparents took these children, the grandparents were going to provide for them like their own children. As a result, there were no services for the grandparents who were becoming parents. But now, many community organizations, churches, schools and social service agencies are beginning to take a look at these families, and provide services for them."

Poe, a licensed psychotherapist and the author of "Black Grandparents as Parents," noted out that the phenomenon cuts across all racial and ethnic lines and places unimagined stress on all family members. Usually, the grandparent has to face not only the tasks of child-rearing, the loss of income and the overcrowding of living space, but the emotional loss of their own adult children to drugs or AIDS. In addition, the grandparents find themselves cut off from their former friends, deprived of their leisure time activities, and faced with a hostile legal climate that often leaves the grandchild unprotected.

"People say, 'I miss being a grandparent, where I could spoil them and do all the fun things with them,'" said Poe. In a strange reversal of roles, the biological parent "can play Santa Claus to the grandchildren by picking them up sporadically without any structured visits, overindulging these children, then bringing them back to the grandparents, who have to get the children together again."

A legal catch-22 is that when a child is receiving financial support through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, formerly Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), the check is usually made out my child's biological mother, even if the grandparent is doing the actual parenting. The mother often uses the check to support her drug habit, leaving the child with no money.

"It's heart-rending. The grandparents are the only source of stability for the grandchildren," said Ethel Dunn, executive director of the National Coalition of Grandparents in Madison, Wisc. "Our only advice is to bite the bullet and take your daughter to court. But they're wary of doing that, because sometimes the daughter will say, 'OK, I'm taking the kids back,' then will neglect them. In that case, they can file a 'child in need of protection' order."

There have been a lot of changes in grandparent law in the last five years. Today, both California and the federal government mandate that a grandparent or a relative is the first choice of placement for a child removed by the social service system. But an estimated 75 percent are not formally placed and receive no services.

Dr. Poe said one positive development is that grandparent advocacy groups in California are "working at redefining adoption so that it doesn't mean permanency. Because when they only have legal guardianship or legal custody, they are in and out of the courts. But through kin adoption, you can provide stability and security during the time the birth parents are in treatment."