The age of Grandparents is made of many tragedies

Marantz Henig, The Atlantic, Jun 1, 2018

proportion of children living in “grandfamilies” has doubled in the U.S. since
1970—and the reasons are often sad ones.
Edgar Su
/ Reuters

Barb’s son showed up at her house with his daughter Avery, 2, on a frigid night
in February, it was long past the toddler’s bedtime. So Barb (who asked me to
use only first or middle names for her and her family) hustled them inside and
set them both up in the guest room. The next day, Valentine’s Day, she searched
Craigslist and found a used crib for her granddaughter. She thought the
arrangement was temporary.

“I was
probably delusional,” Barb told me over the phone recently from her home in
Bucks County, Pennsylvania. At the time she believed her son, who had a long
history of abusing drugs and alcohol, was just going through another brief bit
of “drama” with his girlfriend, who had her own problems with substance abuse.
But a few months later, he moved out of the guest room for good, leaving the
little girl behind. That was six years ago.
son has been granted full physical custody custody of Avery, but even though he
lives nearby he hardly ever comes around. Neither does his ex-girlfriend,
Avery’s mother, with whom he shares joint legal custody. So it’s been left to
Barb, 68, and her husband Fran, 69, to raise their granddaughter. The only one
who regularly shows up to help is their daughter, 37, who has no children of
her own.
“No one
expects to spend their retirement raising a child,” said Barb, a former
teacher. “It changes everything. Your life is turned upside down.” But she’s
not complaining. Sure, she can’t travel as much as she’d hoped to, and she has
no social life; all activities revolve around Avery, now 8, and the other kids’
mothers aren’t really friend material for Barb. But she gets great joy from
being with her granddaughter. “I really think of her as my third child,” she
told me. This time around, though, “I have learned not to sweat the small
stuff,” she said. She doesn’t stress out about Avery’s test scores, or about
the “little-girl drama” of third-grade cliques. Instead, she focuses on giving
Avery love, stability, and the skills to fight her own battles.
grandparents than ever are being put in a position like Barb and Fran—becoming
full-time parents again, often with fewer resources and more health problems
than they had the first time around. The arrangement is not new, of course—people
raised by grandparents for at least part of their childhood include Maya
Angelou, Carol Burnett, and two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack
Obama—but it’s more common than ever these days. (The Greek god Zeus was raised
by his grandmother, too, though that was really the least she could do: Her
son, Cronus, threatened to swallow the child whole.) The proportion of children
living in “grandfamilies” has doubled
in the U.S. since 1970, and has gone up 7
in the past five years alone—an increase many
to the opioid epidemic.
to the Centers for Disease Control, about 3 percent of children nationwide live
apart from their parents, and of those, nearly two-thirds are
being raised by grandparents. Some 2.6 million
are raising their grandchildren, either because of a
temporary change in circumstance for the parents, such as military deployment
or joblessness, or something more lasting and terrible: mental illness,
divorce, incarceration, death, or, as in Barb and Fran’s case, substance abuse.
grandchildren can take a toll on grandparents: higher-than-normal rates of
depression, sleeplessness, emotional problems, and chronic health
like hypertension and diabetes; feelings of exhaustion,
loneliness, and isolation
; a sense of having too little privacy, and
too little
to spend with their spouses, friends, and other family members.
There’s a disproportionately high rate of poverty among grandparents raising
grandchildren, and more than 40 percent
having economic or social-service needs—for themselves or,
more often, their grandchildren—that are unmet.
grandparents might be struggling with complicated
about their own child’s shortcomings as a parent, too,
which stirs up an unsettling mixture of disappointment, embarrassment, anger,
and resentment. They might be grieving for a child who either died or simply
walked away, and for the vision they once had of a simple, ordinary,
fun-with-the-grandkids kind of grandparenthood.
there are unexpected
. Some grandparents say they feel younger because of being
involved again in the day-to-day lives of children, running to after-school
activities, or reading Harry Potter and teen magazines to keep current. They
also have a renewed sense of purpose, at just the time of life when their
age-mates report
feeling less and less necessary
. The kids can benefit, too;
according to some studies,
children raised by their grandparents have fewer behavioral problems than those
who end up in foster care with non-relatives, though perhaps there was
something that set apart those kids and families in the first place.
Yet even
while grandparents offer stability and consistency to children whose previous
lives might have been chaotic, grandfamilies suffer from a particular kind of
precariousness. For a variety of reasons, most grandparents are not licensed
foster-care providers
, don’t have custody or guardianship of their
grandchildren, and thus don’t have legal standing to make decisions regarding
the children’s schooling, medical care, or vacation plans. “We estimate that
for every one child in foster care with relatives,” said Ana Beltran, an
attorney with the advocacy group Generations United, “there are 20 outside of
foster care with relatives,” usually grandparents.
Why are
so few grandfamilies actually licensed? For some, the idea just feels wrong.
Why go through all the red tape to make it a legal relationship when these
children are already family? Why invite child-welfare caseworkers and judges to
monitor what’s taking place in your own home? Grandparents might balk at
licensing because it means giving the child over to the legal custody of the
state. Or they might worry about failing the licensing requirements in their
state, which could entail strict criminal background checks that take into
account nonviolent crimes committed in youth, or strict housing standards that
dictate a certain number of bedrooms or a particular amount of floor space per
a licensed foster parent might not even be an option for everyone, Beltran
said, since to be eligible for licensing, the grandchild must have come to the
grandparent’s home by way of a child-welfare agency. But many grandchildren
arrive the way Barb’s did—late at night, without much prior warning, dropped
off by a parent who eventually leaves.
majority of grandparents raising grandchildren, then, are left to make their
way through trial and error, cobbling together financial and logistical support
for the grandchildren as best they can. They live in a kind of shadow world,
worried that things could shift without warning, causing their beloved
grandchild to be sent back to an unsafe situation, or to be sent into
non-relative foster care.
Barb has
no legal standing with Avery; it’s her son who has custody, and Barb fears that
his ex, Avery’s biological mother, will someday go back to court to try to get
custody. One way some grandparents avoid this sense of precariousness is
through a program called assisted
. Created by the Fostering Connections Act of 2008,
which gives all states and some Native American tribes the option to use
federal child-welfare money for this purpose, assisted guardianship is a way
for licensed foster grandparents to exit the foster system. They continue to
receive the same monthly payments they received as foster parents for the
child’s food, shelter, and clothing, plus access to support services to help
meet the child’s educational and emotional challenges. But there’s no longer
any need for oversight from child-welfare agencies and courts. As a result,
assisted guardianships cost the state much less than non-relative foster
care—$10,000 a year per child, compared to $60,000 per year for foster care,
according to Beltran—and the grandparents with this arrangement have legal
authority to act in their grandchild’s best interest without a case worker
checking in.
there’s a catch: Assisted guardianship is only available to grandparents or
other relatives who are already licensed foster parents. That means it’s no
help at all to the majority of grandfamilies. And even though it’s supposed to
be available across the country, it is not. Ten years after the act was passed,
only 35 states, the District of Columbia, and eight tribes offer assisted
arrangement of grandparents raising grandchildren is precarious in another way,
too: The grandparents are older and sicker than typical parents, and more
likely to die before the children they’re raising reach adulthood. (But they’re
not as old as many might suspect: About 61 percent of grandparents raising
grandchildren are younger than
age 60
.) Barb, for instance, has rheumatoid arthritis that flared up
recently, and she started aggressive therapy in hopes of staving off symptoms
while Avery still needs her. “I hope I can stay healthy enough to at least get
her through the next couple of years,” she told me. “I’m not anxious to do the
teenage years again. But I know that, as close as we are, [the early teens]
might really be a hard age for her to handle losing one of us.”
sometimes looks at Barb and says, “Why are you so old, Grandmom?” Buried in
that question is her fear of being abandoned again. Barb talks about the scene
in The Lion King when Simba’s father tells him that if he ever feels alone, he
should look up at the stars and talk to his dead ancestors. “I tell her, ‘You
know, you can do that if something happens to me,’” Barb said. “I tell her, ‘As
long as I’m in your heart and your head, I’ll be there, and I’ll listen.’” She
doesn’t really believe she’ll be up in the sky listening, but she thinks it’s
the kind of comforting thought that an 8-year-old deserves.