When Cynthia Kersey agreed last year to provide a home for her granddaughters, now 3 and 4, she had to figure out how to pay the financial cost of her love for them: Her health insurance would jump $300 a month unless she could qualify them for Medicaid, and day care for two while she worked as a paralegal could cost as much as $900 a month.
While she sorted it out, a trip to the pharmacy set her back almost $200. And neither girl had been immunized, also paid out of pocket. Then there were diapers for the youngest, who wasn't yet potty trained. The list was daunting for the 45-year-old West Valley, Utah, grandmother, although her fiance, Scott Marsala, was supportive and willing to sacrifice, too, to make it work.
Shelby and Rylie are among the 2 percent of children raised in "grandfamilies," the responsibility for them resting on grandparents rather than parents. According to Rachel Dunifon, professor in policy analysis and management at Cornell University and associate dean for research and outreach for the College of Human Ecology, those families often face challenges that are "hidden below the public radar."
"Despite their needs, grandfamilies are usually ineligible for the higher levels of financial help available to foster parents and often don't receive even the more modest welfare benefits to which they are entitled," she wrote in a report for the Child and Family Blog, released Monday.
If the arrangement between family members is "informal," the grandparents may also lack legal authority to make school or medical decisions for the child.
The U.S. Census Bureau says that 7.8 million American children live in households headed by grandparents. Most are part of what's called "three-generation" families that includes a parent. But 2.6 million children are primarily the responsibility of their grandparents and more than 1 million have no parent in the home. Two-thirds of those grandparents are younger than 60 and about 20 percent live in poverty.
A little help
To quantify both the challenges and rewards in grandfamilies (those where no parent is present), Dunifon interviewed 59 sets of teenagers and a grandparent raising them. They came from rural and urban settings in New York, and all answered surveys and participated in interviews, including videotaped discussions of their lives.
The study was also published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, and findings are part of a chapter by Dunifon and colleagues at Cornell and Northwestern University in an upcoming book, "Grandparenting in the U.S."
Grandfamilies don't receive needed supports for various reasons, including they are not foster families, so they don't get the "more generous and complete package of financial and other supports that foster parents receive," the researcher said.
The findings echo other studies that show grandchildren often arrive in a grandfamily through informal arrangements within the family. Most grandfamilies are eligible for a small cash assistance program called "child only TANF," Dunifon said, but they don't know it and "very few receive it."
Dunifon noted that both adults and children in grandfamilies have many health problems. For the kids, the issues often include problematic behavior components, like attention-deficit disorder.
"If the health systems can be aware of the particular needs of such families and even tailor some services toward them, that would be helpful," Dunifon said. "Such services could include psychological and counseling services for the children, who have usually gone through some very difficult experiences in their young lives; respite programs for grandparents who need a break sometimes from caring for children at an older age; and parenting programs for grandparents who struggle with parenting for a second time in very different circumstances."
Policies that would help such families should have mechanisms to inform them about the social assistance for which they're eligible, she said.
"These families are oftentimes financially stressed, as the grandparents were not planning on taking in a child at this time in their lives. Many grandparents are retired and have fixed incomes," Dunifon said. "Therefore, any cash assistance for which they are eligible, no matter how modest, would be helpful."
She was surprised to learn that parents of the children are often still involved in their lives, though they've stopped raising them.
"Some parents live very nearby and see their child often. Sometimes they have gone on to have other children with other partners and are raising these children. The role of parents in the lives of grandfamilies is complicated and challenging for grandparents and children alike," she said. "I would love to see programs developed that help grandparents and grandchildren work out how to best involve the absent parent in their lives, as well as programs targeting those absent parents to give them some skills that will enhance their interactions with the child they are not raising, but with whom they remain involved."
Research in general has shown complicated relationships in the lives of children who for various reasons don't live with their parents. In a study published in Family Relations, Megan L. Dolbin-MacNab of Viginia Polytech and her colleagues found that half of teens living with grandparents feel caught in the middle between them and their parents. At least a quarter note relationships with parents that are strained by feelings of anger and distrust, loss and betrayal.
Kersey's daughter recently moved to Utah to start over. She's trying to find a job, get back in school and become someone worthy and capable of raising her daughters. Kersey supports that goal, although she's cautious when it comes to her grandchildren.
"I'm torn," she admits. "You want to help your children to succeed. If you can help get them back on their feet, that's great. But the girls are my priority."
Kersey says she has been blessed as she's navigated the challenges of being a second-time-around "mother" to her grandkids. Besides help from extended family, including her other children, her colleagues at Patent Law Works have been exceptional.
She tears up when recalling showing up at work to find her desk covered with toys and clothing for the girls. She was allowed to work from home for a while as she and the little girls got to know each other.
But being a grandfamily is harder than if she were the parent, because of the lives the children had before they came to her. They had to overcome neglect, bad eating habits, a complete lack of a normal schedule. And they were almost strangers. She's not sure how she'd make it, she adds, if she didn't receive the modest assistance she's been able to tap into for help.
That assistance, said Dunifon, is something that most grandfamilies never access.
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