SHERMAN Fifteen years ago, with their youngest just out of college, Dorothy Perkins and her husband were enjoying their empty nest. They had become used to not having kids around. Mrs. Perkins also cared for her 89-year-old father, who lived about 90 miles away.
Between work, family and community activities, both Perkinses had full lives. “We were both professionals at the time,” said Perkins, who is now retired. “I was a school counselor for Sherman Independent School District and my husband was in the legal profession.”
Then they got a phone call.
A lawyer representing their son who was serving overseas in the U.S. Navy called to tell them their son’s former wife was unable to care for their two grandchildren, and the children’s safety depended on the Perkinses taking them in.
So in October 1989, the couple made a four-and-a-half hour drive to pick up their grandchildren. One child was 2-1/2 years old; the other was three days away from his eighth birthday. The couple “went before the court to obtain temporary custody until other legal arrangements could be made,” Perkins said.
When their son completed his active duty and returned to Texas, he came to their home and the three father and grandparents shared parental duties. But until then, for almost two years, they were acting parents for their grandchildren.
They were not alone. According to Andrew Crocker, Texas Cooperative Extension gerontology health program specialist in Amarillo, Texas ranks second in the nation for co-resident grandparents. He said census figures show 47 percent of these grandparents have primary parenting responsibilities for the child or children, and 22 percent of them live at or below the poverty line.
And it’s not just grandparents, Crocker said. “It’s kinship care givers aunts, uncles. Many children are living in homes of relatives who are not their parents.”
The reasons for this growing phenomenon are many, Crocker said, including the parents’ inability to support the children financially, or parents who are extremely young, on drugs or in jail.
Joe and Sandra, another Texas couple, have been raising their 7-year-old grandson since he was 3. Because of privacy considerations, they asked that their last name not be used.
Joe, who was already retired when the couple’s young grandson came to live with them, said as far as daily routines are concerned, raising children and raising grandchildren is very similar. “You just jump right in there and do what has to be done,” he said with a laugh.
But when it comes to issues outside the normal day-to-day routine, many of these care giving grandparents face a whole new view of child-rearing. The Perkinses discovered issues they never realized existed.
“In our case, it was an emergency situation, but we were not anticipating taking lifetime care of them,” Perkins said. However, the children needed their grandparents’ full-time care for a long time, so the couple had to face a new world that included finding child day care and establishing some kind of custody so they could provide medical care for the children and enroll them in school.
“Rearing a child 25 years ago is not anything like rearing a child now,” Crocker said.
For Joe and Sandra, whose grandson may be bi-polar, raising him has additional issues. He may be “a little bit different,” Joe said, “but he’s also very loving and very appreciative.”
Joe loves his grandson, and both he and his wife work very hard to be the best parents they can be for him. “We hope to be able to raise him to manhood,” Joe said. Although their grandson also has trouble concentrating on one task at a time “He’s very intelligent and … is an A’ student.” For help in getting used to their new family circumstances, both the Perkinses and Joe and Sandra turned to the Child Guidance Clinic of Texoma, a local, non-profit United Way organization. At the time, Perkins was a member of the board of that agency.
Joe and Sandra also found help, support and information at the Texoma Council of Governments.
Joe stressed the importance of also making connections with any locally-available grandparents’ support groups. “It really helps to exchange ideas and just to be able to share problems,” he said. “Sandra and I have been especially glad to be able to share our success with other people who are really struggling.”
But first, Joe advised, “Take care of the legal end and gain legal custody.” Although they didn’t legally adopt their grandson, Joe and Sandra did establish their legal rights to make all decisions for him. In addition to navigating through the legal paperwork necessary to establish the grandparents’ rights to provide care for their grandchildren, the Perkinses had to get used to all the activities children like. When her grandchildren first came to live with them, Perkins said, she made sure the older one was involved in soccer, Boy Scouts and church, and the younger one was involved in church and other activities as he became old enough.
“So there I was, sitting at soccer games with mothers who were 30 years younger than me,” Perkins said. She might have felt a little awkward at first, but that passed. “My experience has been that younger families accept you very beautifully and help wherever they can.”
Her husband, who was in charge to taking the younger child to the babysitter, often had to contend with dirty diapers and upset stomachs, she added with a laugh.
But grandparent-headed families are all different, Perkins stressed. And nearly all of them need support. That’s why she helped found a group called Grandparents As Parents, which is operated through the Texoma Area Agency on Aging. Currently Perkins is volunteer coordinator for that organization.
“It’s different for everybody,” she said. “There’s no rule of thumb here. At the first meeting of our first group (in 1990), we had a grandmother who was 33. Her daughter (the grandchild’s mother) was 15; she (the mother) also had a son who was 3. The daughter couldn’t sign any papers without her mother’s consent because she was not of legal age.” Another family was headed by a great-grandmother, Perkins said, who had raised her children, her grandchildren, and was then raising her great-grandchild, who was younger than 5.
But even though the families are different, they face many of the same problems and issues. That’s why Perkins lists two major factors that grandparents raising their grandchildren have to face:
“One is, you have to have legal custody of the child, so you can get the necessary benefits for that child,” she said. These benefits include medical care Medicaid or other social service may be necessary here and, if the family qualifies, Social Security payments and food stamps. When Joe and Sandra’s grandson became a full-time member of their family, Joe was able to add him to his medical insurance that he still carried from his former employer. “Later we put him on Medicaid, and that’s been a God-send because it made it easy to assure getting him the medical attention he needs.”
The second factor is vital, Perkins stressed. “It’s extremely important for grandparents to take care of themselves mentally, emotionally and spiritually (to prevent) a second life abandonment of that child.” If custodial grandparents do not take good care of themselves, their dependent grandchildren could end up with no one to raise them, she said, especially if their parents are incarcerated or on drugs.
To help with that situation, a pilot program in North Texas has been developed through the auspices of the local Area Agency on Aging to provide professional counseling for a small group of grandparents, to help them get answers to their questions and to provide emotional and practical support for them, she said. This pilot program will be offered in six sessions in the fall, with an additional six in the spring. If successful, Perkins said, she hopes to present the program at the Texas Kincare Symposium, scheduled for June 17-18, 2004, in Austin. Extension is one of the co-sponsors of the symposium. For more information, contact a county Extension agent.
Joe and Sandra agreed that becoming parents for grandchildren may be stressful, but it is also extremely rewarding.
“While it may be a trying process and not the retirement we had planned, it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor to know we’ve helped changed a young life and helped keep him safe and loved. I’m glad we have the opportunity to help mold a young life and help make him a responsible citizen,” Joe said.
Sandra added that she and Joe have absolutely no regrets and would to do it all over again, “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
“I think and hope we’ve provided stability and created challenges for him (grandson) to accomplish more than he thinks he can accomplish,” she said. “If I would rate this child, I would think he had more chances than some children do. I’m pleased with the overall picture … “He calls me special mom’.”
While some people might feel shame because they and their children and grandchildren are in a situation where the family mix must be changed, Sandra said, “No one is perfect and we all have our own baggage. None of these children caused the situation they are in, and they need opportunities.
“God just has a way of doing things, opening door after door to enable us to do things for (grandson),” she said. “Our story is a success story, for whatever time we’ve had him. If it ever changed and we don’t want it to we would know we made an impression on these early years.
“We’re raising him to set him free. And we’re delighted to be a part of that.”
For more information and resources for grandparents raising their grandchildren, visit Extension’s Web site at: http://grandparentsraisinggrandkids.tamu.edu/