A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

To grandmother’s house we go; conference offers support for grandparents raising grandchildren

By Vicki Prichard
NKyTribune Reporter

Four years ago, when social workers placed Jeanne Miller-Jacobs’ three grandchildren in the care of her and her husband, finding a support system was none too easy. The number of grandparents raising their grandchildren is swelling, and there is a growing need for support networks and access to essential resources. Local agencies and organizations are doing their part to fill that void.

The dubious honor of having the most grandparents raising grandchildren in the U.S. goes to Kentucky.

According to 2010 U.S. Census figures, 57,000 children — six percent of Kentucky children — under the age of 18 live with a grandparent as their primary caregiver. A breakdown of numbers by districts show that four percent of children in Northern Kentucky are raised by grandparents.

Jeanne Miller-Jacobs with her grandchildren, Jordan, Lieum, and Kelsey.

Jeanne Miller-Jacobs with her grandchildren, Jordan, Lieum, and Kelsey.

Grandfamilies, the moniker ascribed to grandparents and other relatives raising grandchildren, account for the care of 7.8 million children nationwide. Of those children, 2.6 million are raised exclusively by grandparents.

A 2014 report from the Kinship Families Coalition, a community group dedicated to raising awareness of issues surrounding kinship care in Kentucky and advocating for policy changes to support those families, shows that 58 percent of the grandparents who are primarily responsible for raising their grandchildren are still in the workforce.

In Kentucky, 72 percent of the grandparents are under 60-years-old; 49 percent are in the workforce; 25 percent live in poverty; 49 percent have neither parent of the children living in the home; and one in three grandchildren is under six-years-old.

The silent phenomena

Mike Hammons, director of advocacy for Children, Inc., says the situation of grandparents raising grandchildren has been somewhat a silent phenomenon that needs to be brought to the surface so people realize how pervasive it is and how it causes families to suffer.

“We need to do more to improve how these kids are raised and supported,” says Hammons.

For that reason, Children, Inc. will hold its second annual event Grandparents as Parents Conference on October 21 to raise awareness and to support grandparents and other relative caregivers who parent children in the community. The event will take place at the Life Learning Center, located at 20 18th Street, Covington, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event is $5 for grandparents or relatives and $50 for all professionals. Attendees will receive free legal consults throughout the day and learn about essential resources from various area social service agencies.

Mike Hammons, director of advocacy with Children, Inc.

Mike Hammons, director of advocacy with Children, Inc.

Gayle Holten, a family matters expert and former parent and family life columnist with The Kentucky Post, will be the event’s keynote speaker.

Myriad reasons account for why children are unable to stay in their home with their parents, among them parental death, disability, abuse and neglect, physical or mental health issues, military deployment, and parental substance abuse.

Hammons suspects that the growing opiate epidemic, increasingly, plays a major role in landing children square in their grandparents lap.

“Surely the situation has gotten worse with the heroin epidemic because so many of the folks who are victims are, that are addicted, do have young children and they leave their parents with not much choice but to come and take over and be supportive and raise the kids, rather than have them placed with strangers in foster care,” says Hammons.

Holten concurs with Hammons that the heroin epidemic is exacerbating the already large population of grandparents raising grandchildren.

“There is every reason in the book why they’re raising grandkids, but many are due to the explosion in the heroin epidemic, other drugs, or mental illness,” says Holten.

The growing number of grandparents raising their grandchildren first caught Hammons’ eye in early 2013, when state budget cuts cut off kinship care payments given to grandparents to help them with the cost of raising kids.

“A lot of people think, ‘well, grandparents ought to be doing this on their own — they love their grandkids and they’ll do whatever for them,’ says Hammons. “Well, it’s a lot more cost than we generally understand. And a lot of grandparents are eating into their retirement, or being forced to work another job to make ends meet, and they’re struggling.”

Sleepless nights

Miller-Jacobs was 54-years-old when her three grandchildren were placed with her and her husband. Her son and daughter-in-law had been living with them, she says, in hopes of getting back on their feet, but, she says, “it always seemed like it was one thing or another.” Her son had struggled with addiction to pain medication after an accident, and “somewhere along the way” the daughter-in-law became addicted to heroin.

Three months after her son and daughter-in-law moved out of Jacob-Miller’s home, social services placed their three grandchildren in their care. She and her husband were then raising a seven-month-old, a one-year-old and three-year-old child.

Miller-Jacobs describes their ‘didn’t bat an eye’ decision to take the children as saving something sacred.

“If your house is on fire and you have something in the house that you love, and the fireman says, “You can go get it and come out,” you don’t hesitate,”” says Miller-Jacobs.

Suddenly she and her husband defined their days and nights by feeding schedules and little sleep. Because of the parents’ addictions, two of the children were born exposed to drugs.

“What’s typical with drug babies is you feed them every three hours, so if they fuss you just feed them,” she says. “I went from sleeping at night to having a baby up every three hours.”

Cindy Harvey and Nancy Caudill of Erlanger are neighbors, friends, and a support system for one another.

Cindy Harvey and Nancy Caudill of Erlanger are neighbors, friends, and a support system for one another.

When she and her husband took the children in they were both working, but on the day the children came into their care, her husband lost his job. Miller-Jacobs continued to work but says they were fortunate because now they had someone to be home with the children. She says her heart breaks when she hears grandparents say they couldn’t afford to feed the children and had to let them go.

A lifetime of ‘mothering’

Nancy Caudill of Erlanger is 78-years-old and raising her two great-grandchildren. For Caudill, who retired at 62 after managing a local BP station for many years, there are no golden years. Her mornings begin at 6:30 am when she accompanies her great-grandson to the bus stop, and then she makes sure her great-granddaughter catches the bus that comes for her an hour later. Afternoons and evenings are spent doing homework and afterschool athletic activities for the children. Caudill’s husband passed away three years ago, so her son moved in to help. Financially, she receives a small amount of support from the K-TAP program and the children are on Medicaid.

As Caudill reflects on her life, it seems she’s always been mothering someone.

“My brother told me, “I figured you out, you’ve got mom’s heart. You never give up,”” says Caudill. “I’ve always worked – since I was 14. I quit school to take care of my little mentally retarded sister and I’ve been going at it ever since.”

Caudill’s granddaughter came to live with her when she was 15-years-old and began sneaking out of the house and, eventually, taking drugs. At one point she stole from Caudill’s place of employment. Eventually, her two children were removed and placed in Caudill’s care.

Fortunately, Caudill has an informative and helpful resource nearby. Her neighbor Cindy Harvey happens to be raising her two grandchildren. Harvey, who has navigated her way through the array of questions that plague so many grandparents in their position, is quick to share information with Caudill and other grandparents. Caudill describes having Harvey as a friend and neighbor as “a miracle.”

Like Caudill and Miller-Jacobs, Harvey’s role as primary caretaker for her grandchildren was the result of addiction. Five years ago, after Harvey’s daughter had returned to her house to live with the two children, a social worker came knocking on the door. Harvey says she wasn’t going to lie to the social worker about the drugs that she knew her daughter and her boyfriend were doing, and she was devastated when the two admitted that they were taking the children – one just an infant at the time – with them when they purchased drugs.

“It just killed me,” says Harvey. “It’s so sad because these kids are like throwaway kids. They want to love them and act like they’re mommy and daddy when they’re around but they don’t do anything for them.”

The social worker placed the children with Harvey, who was 54 at the time, and her husband, and they’ve remained with them for five years. Earlier this summer, the children’s father died of an overdose, and Harvey’s daughter, also an addict, is currently in jail. She went through a detox center but wound up on drugs again.

“I guess if you’re an addict it doesn’t matter if you go from one drug to another,” says Harvey. “Sometimes I feel like there’s no hope and I hate when I feel like that. My kids came first and now my grandkids come first, but that drug rules their life.”

For Harvey it’s hard to believe how many grandparents are in similar situations. She says she recently met another grandmother who recently became her grandson’s primary caretaker after his father died from a heroin overdose this summer. Harvey says she shared information with her.

Harvey met Miller-Jacobs through a support group. She refers to Miller-Jacobs as one of the ‘success stories.’

Miller-Jacobs says that once her son got his life together, and her daughter became sober for two years, they began taking the children on weekends. In February, when the two had established a home, stable jobs and transportation, the family court gave them joint custody of the children. As of August the children spend 95 percent of their time with her son and daughter-in-law.

“For me, I am extremely blessed and lucky that my son and daughter-in-law are doing so amazing” says Miller-Jacobs.

From doting grandparent to disciplinarian

When grandparents go from a loving, spoiling grandparent to a strict disciplinarian – holding the children that they’re raising at a different standard that they do other grandkids, or cousins, when they come to visit, it can become a conflict with the children, says Hammons.

“These situations are quite complex and can be hurtful,” he says. “It’s hard for kids to understand these things – it’s hard for grandparents and parents to fully appreciate the impact of these relationships and these perceived differences and biases. Being better aware of these dynamics will help us communicate better how grandparents and parents are trying to work in concert for the best of the child.”

Holten says gaining that clarity in the relationship — the switch from ‘grandma’ to ‘mom’ — can be difficult.

“The grief comes in as they mourn their loss of just being grandma and grandpa,” says Holten.

Miller-Jacobs says anyone who knows her knows that more than anything she wanted to be ‘grandma’ to her grandchildren.

“You psychologically move to a different process – you don’t know how to get help, you get misinformation, you become exhausted,” says Miller-Jacobs. “Then you get your act together. You realize you have to teach these little people – how to cook, how to read. I have to be that parent. So then you grieve because you’ve looked forward to having a grandchild – you love them but you have to be the disciplinarian. You lose that special relationship because this is who you are now.”

Nancy Caudill's great-grandchildren, Cody and Patience.

Nancy Caudill’s great-grandchildren, Cody and Patience.

For grandparents, explaining to friends why they’re taking care of their grandchildren can be a source of embarrassment, says Hammons.

“I think it can be embarrassing for grandparents that their children aren’t taking care of the kids, and it’s something about the fact that grandparents love their grandkids that I think factors into it too – they’re willing to do whatever they can, even raise their grandkids because they are grandparents they don’t think they will get a lot of sympathy for the challenges they face,” he says.

After a while, says Miller-Jacobs, the feeling evolves to “They’re mine.”

Miller-Jacobs remembers the first time she told her support group about her son’s incarceration.

“I bawled, I was so ashamed, but they said, ‘All of our sons are in jail.’ I thought they would think poorly of me,” she says. “There’s a lot of people in my situation who are really good people.”

Miller-Jacobs met a lot of those people at last year’s first Children, Inc. conference on grandparents.

“I walked away with so much knowledge about options,” she says.

She’s also found critical support groups. Three years ago she and her husband started going to support groups through the Kenton County Extension Center. And, along the way, she’s become a resource of support and direction for many grandparents as well.

“All of a sudden I’ll get a phone call from someone and it will start with, “So and so said you could help me,”” says Miller-Jacobs.

Enjoy the journey

Holten hopes to provide grandparents who attend the Children, Inc. grandparent conference with some constructive tools for this chapter in their lives.

“My contention is that I want families to be able to enjoy the journey and not hurry up and get to the result,” says Holten. “We are never in the moment with our families. Why do we do that? It’s become my focus to help families enjoy the stage they’re in.”

For grandparents who find themselves shifting to the parental role, Holten points to five parenting constructs which she will present at the conference, which are based on her research.

The five constructs include:

– Appropriate expectations. Some parents, she says, lack knowledge of child development and therefore had inappropriate expectations.

“If you don’t understand that two-year-olds can’t resist temptation, and you keep saying, “You’re doing that to make me mad,” that’s an inappropriate expectation.”

To consistently tell a child that their action is solely intent on making the parent/grandparent angry can result in the child feeling that he or she can’t please them and they feel diminished.

– Empathy, says Holten is important in parenting.

“When empathy is high, abuse and neglect are low,” she says. “We can’t see the world through the eyes of the child because we’re too busy seeing it through our own eyes. Kids aren’t trying to give us a hard time, they’re having a hard time because they’re a kid.”

– Understanding positive discipline will keep a child from pulling away, says Holten. Corporal punishment and time out can be destructive to a child who has had an abrupt change in their living and family dynamic.

Cindy Harvey with her grandchildren, Adam and Aubrey.

Cindy Harvey with her grandchildren, Adam and Aubrey.

“A kid that’s lost its primary family, to be put in a room by him or herself puts it back into abandonment mode,” she says. “Pull them to you and say, “Sit by me until you calm down. Positive dignity doesn’t compromise your dignity or the child’s.”

– The fourth construct is role reversal, as in the negative sense, says Holten. Look at what happens in families when the adults don’t know how to get their needs met in healthy ways and look for the child to meet their goals, or ‘parentifying’ the child.

Twenty years ago, Holten says the number one complaint I heard was the lack of sleep and rest parents had, becoming human ‘doings’ rather than human ‘beings,’ and that’s especially true for grandparents who take on grandkids.

“We have to teach them that you’ve got to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else,” says Holten. “That’s why you hear the recurring thing about needing a support system. It’s a crucial way to take care of yourself.”

– And, finally, the fifth construct, she says, is most likely to get families in trouble when they don’t embrace it. It is to recognize and honor the inherent personal power that every human has.

“Kids need age appropriate power,” says Holten. “You have to be their advocate and encourage healthy personal power. Help them learn to think things through for themselves. Don’t tell them what to think, but how to think.”

“We’ve got to be students of life.”

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