More Grandparents Taking Role of 'Mom' and 'Dad'

Grandparents Day is September 11, but for some grandparents, every day is spent with grandchildren.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2.7 million grandchildren are being raised by their grandparents, who give up their retirement and take over the responsibilities of being a full-time primary caregiver. Nearly one fifth of these grandfamilies are living below the poverty level.

Janis Marler, a social worker based in New Jersey, discussed with what you need to know when parents are absent or unable to raise their children and grandparents step in.

Boomer: What is causing the recent surge in grandparents raising grandchildren?

Marler: The number continues to rise nationwide. Of the 3,000 grandparents that report being responsible for one or more grandchildren in Monmouth and Ocean counties in NJ respectively, over 1,000 report being solely responsible with NO parent present in the home. The number one reason is parental substance abuse. A recent New York Times article on the rising number of custodial grandparents cites the current opiate epidemic as causal. As more and more parents become addicted to pain killers, more and more children suffer the effects of that addiction and are then often removed from their homes and placed with grandparents and other kin. Other reasons include parental death, incarceration, abuse and neglect, divorce and abandonment.

Boomer: What type of assistancebenefits are available to these grandparents?

Marler: The type of custody arrangement determines the type of assistance/benefits grandparents are entitled to. For instance, if a child is removed from the home by child protective services and placed with the grandparents, then they are entitled, in most states, to receive foster care payments on behalf of the children in their care. For those grandparents who step in prior to child protective services, and obtain legal guardianship, there may be subsidies available, though generally less of a stipend. In NJ, as in other states, there is a Kinship Legal Guardianship service which provides resources for "grandfamilies." They offer something called a "wraparound" stipend, $500 per year per family. This amount may be used for clothing, school supplies, computers, etc.  Other sources of financial assistance include:  parental child support; Social Security for those who are retired or for a child who's parent is deceased; TANF "child only grant;" food stamps; children's health insurance program (CHIP) for children under 18; and Medicaid for those whose incomes are limited.

Boomer: How does one go about getting legal guardianship over their grandchildren? Is there legal/financial help available for those who cannot afford it?

Marler: There are three options for grandparents:  legal custody, guardianship, and adoption. All three require that the court be petitioned. The most common way to establish a legal relationship with a grandchild, is by getting a custody order. This may require the child's parent be proved unfit. However, some states may be more flexible if the grandchild has been living with the grandparent for a time. If legal custody is granted, then the parent(s) will have to go to court in order to prove themselves able to care for their children.

The second option is guardianship. Guardianship is similar to legal custody, in that it is a legal relationship between grandparent and grandchild that is ordered by a court. As in legal custody, grandparents accept the day-to-day caregiving responsibilities for the child, while parents retain some of their rights. The primary difference is that guardianship is usually handled in probate court.

In some states, guardianships are more permanent than legal custody—(remaining in effect until the child is 18). Sometimes, guardians also have more authority, including the ability to:

•make medical decisions on behalf of a grandchild

•add a grandchild to a health insurance plan

•designate a standby guardian who can take care of a grandchild if and when they are not able to

The final option is adoption. Adoption is a permanent option where the grandparent receives all parental rights and responsibilities and the child's biological parents no longer have any rights

If grandparents are unable to afford to hire a lawyer, they may contact their local Legal Aid office.

Boomer: What life changes can grandparents expect when raising their grandchildren?

Marler: Becoming the caregiver for a grandchild impacts all aspects of a person's life. Grandparents often have legal difficulties related to custody, including possible legal battles with the children's parents. They often have limited financial resources and may worry about providing adequate housing, food and clothing. Parenting may be challenging, especially if the grandchildren have developmental issues. They may have limited energy and even health issues, which make parenting that much harder. They have less time for themselves at a time in life when one should be spending time with friends and/or traveling. One of our grandmas put it this way:  you lose your friends and your freedom. Grandparents may feel anger at their grandchildren's parents, guilt about their own parenting, or embarrassment about their family situation. It can be a very stressful time, yet for many it is also a fulfilling time.

Boomer: Raising a child can be a very emotionally stressful time for any parent. Given the age difference with most of these grandparents, how do they deal with the daily emotions and stress?

Marler: Grandparents deal with the stress of raising grandchildren in different ways. Support groups are extremely important and many find comfort and friendship there as they are "all in the same boat." Some other coping tips include:  sharing their feelings with a relative, friend or professional; taking care of their own health; exercise, such as brisk walking, playing a game of tennis, going to a fitness class; getting a babysitter every so often; connecting with a faith community; and having fun like reading a good book or gardening, even surfing the internet.