More Americans are caring for their children’s children

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Sunday, June 1, 2008
— Matthew and Tristen Heller were full of energy.

On top of the excitement of having visitors, Tristen had turned 9 the same day and was anxious to show off presents from his teacher.

Matthew, 10, was jumping inside and outside the family’s Portland Avenue home. His time-release hyperactivity medication had worn off.

The boys’ grandparents, who had adopted them, were tired.

After dropping off the boys at school, Deb Heller, 56, worked all day at Community Action of Rock and Walworth Counties in Janesville. Neal, who also commutes to Janesville for work, got home at about 6 p.m. after an 11-hour day.

He looked exhausted.

The Hellers aren’t alone.

Nationwide, more than 6 million children—about one in 12—are living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives, according to the AARP Foundation.

In many of the homes, grandparents or other relatives are responsible for the children without either of the parents in the picture.

That was the case with the Hellers until February, when the boys’ father returned from out of state. He’s earning his GED and is looking for work.

Their birth mother, on the other hand, has had nothing to do with the boys for seven years.

Grandparents such as the Hellers often don’t know about services, benefits and policies related to their caregiving roles.

The Hellers were ignorant of the laws until they had to deal with legal issues in two states—Wisconsin and Illinois. The boys lived in Rockford, Ill., before they were taken away from their abusive mother and released to the Hellers.

But then the boys were taken away from the Hellers until they could become licensed as foster parents in Wisconsin.

“It was a nightmare,” Deb said.

Six months later, the boys returned to the Hellers’ home.

Deb said the foster parenting class she and Neal took was helpful.

“We got ideas for resources and information from other grandparents,” she said.

Initially, Deb and Neal thought they were just helping out, believing the boys’ parents eventually would “step up to the plate.”

But the longer they had the boys, the more they came to realize that wouldn’t happen.

The boys’ mother was found guilty of child abuse and lost her parental rights. The father couldn’t provide for them, Deb said.

So she and Neal adopted them in September 2001.

“We did the right thing. We know they’re safe, that we are stable and some place consistent,” Deb said.

Deb said grandparenting was easier in the beginning, before the boys were in school.

“When taking care of the kids, you get the bad and good,’’ she said.

Mary Brintnall-Peterson, with the UW-Extension Family Living Programs in Madison, agreed.

“The reality of grandparents who talk about how difficult it is, they would never not do it because of the joy they get out of raising their grandchildren,” she said.

Grandparents, grandchildren and society, however, all feel the impact, Brintnall-Peterson said.

In addition to the physical, emotional and mental challenges, raising grandchildren is a financial hardship for many grandparents.

More than 27 percent of the children cared for by grandparents in Wisconsin live in poverty compared to 19 percent of children living with their parents, Brintnall-Peterson said.

The Hellers get a monthly allotment from the state of Illinois because the boys have special needs. They budget their money.

“With our focus on a family lifestyle, we don’t spend a lot of money. We’d have a bigger retirement fund without the boys, but that’s just not as important,” Deb said.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t worry.

“As the boys get older,” Neal said, “we’re wondering how we or the boys will be able to save enough money for them to go to technical school or college.’’

Brintnall-Peterson raising grandchildren can strain friendships with peers who no longer have children in their homes.

“They don’t have back-to-school events or child care issues, which puts you socially in a different arena,” she said.

Deb agreed: “I don’t have enough time to spend with friends like I used to—lunch or dinner weekly.

“We used to be able to take off on an evening or weekend and not have to worry about being back home by 8 o’clock,’’ Neal said.

And running after a toddler in your 50s and 60s compared to 20s and 30s is a big difference, Brintnall-Peterson said.

“It doesn’t mean it can’t be done; your body is just at a different point,” she said.

To deal with the work, Deb said, “Neal and I share things—house work, meal preparation, laundry and grocery shopping.’’

One of the biggest issues for grandchildren being raised by grandparents is explaining it to friends and others, Brintnall-Peterson said.

“What do you call them, and how do you explain why they aren’t with Mom and Dad?” she asked.

Tristen said he’s never told anyone his grandparents are raising him and his brother.

“I’m afraid they’ll hate me and won’t want to play with me anymore,” he said.

For grandparents, the biggest obstacle is public policy, especially at school, Brintnall-Peterson said.

“If you’re not the legal guardian of the grandchildren but technically raising them, schools don’t have the authority to work with grandparents because they’re not biological (parents),” she said.

The number of grandparents raising grandchildren increased nearly 700,000 between 2000 and 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Brintnall-Peterson thinks the number will continue to increase.

“My prediction is that in the 2010 census we will see a rise in relationship to the drug and alcohol use by moms who become incapacitated and unable to care for their child, are put in prison or die,” she said.

Meanwhile, she said, the most important thing for grandparents raising grandchildren is to connect with other grandparents like themselves and build support for each other, Brintnall-Peterson said.

“When you think about it, in our nation we have a lot of different family structures,” she said. “This is just one of them.”


-- Rock County Council on Aging, Wisconsin Family Caregiver Support Program, 3328 N. Highway 51, Janesville, for assistance to grandparents with information, connection to services, respite and supplemental services funding. Call (608) 758-8455 or e-mail nfcsp@co.rock.wi.us.


Most counties have their own human services programs offering local assistance and referrals to programs. Look up social services or human services in local government phone listings.

-- Call AARP Wisconsin at 866-448-3611 and ask for Jeanne Benink or go online at www.aarp.org/states/wi and follow the link to the Wisconsin’s Legal Guide for Grandparents and Other Relatives Raising Children on-line order form.

The guide lists advantages and disadvantages, as well as legal aspects of various caregiving arrangements, including informal agreements, guardianships, licensed foster homes and adoption. It also describes Wisconsin programs that can help grandparents and other caregivers give children the support they need. To find out if your county offers free or reduced-cost legal services, see the Resource Section.

-- Badger Care/health insurance information—Call 1-800-362-3002 or visit www.dhfs.state.wi.us/badgercare.

-- Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a statewide coalition of more than 200 agencies and organizations—www.uwex.edu/ces/flp/grandparent/index.html.

-- Grandparents United for Children Rights—Call (608) 238-8751.

-- Lawyer Referral Information Service—Call 1-800-362-9082.

-- Medical Assistance/Medicaid—www.dhfs.state.wi.us/medicaid/index.htm.

-- Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services—http://dhfs.wisconsin.gov.

-- Wisconsin State Law Library Resources—http://wsll.state.wi.us/topic/familylaw/grandparents.html.


-- AARP Grandparent Information Center—Call (888) 687-2277 or visit www.aarp.org/grandparents.

-- National Committee of Grandparents for children’s rights—Call 866-624-9900 or visit www.grandparentsforchildren.org.


A variety of publications of interest to professionals as well as grandparents and other relatives raising grandchildren are available through the UW Extension Family Living Programs at www.cfmxtest.uwex.edu/ces/flp/grandparent/publications.cfm. They are:

-- The Changing Roles of Grandparents.

-- Child Development.

-- Child Rearing.

-- Challenging child care issues.

-- Discipline, limits, problem behaviors.

-- Safety.

-- School, learning and education topics, career planning, recreation and extracurricular activities.

-- Nutrition.

-- Child advocacy (on behalf of child).

-- Economic Security.

-- Grandparent support.

-- Holidays, gifts, relationships.

-- Family history and traditions.

-- Grandparent self-care.

-- Grandparent issues.


-- White children make up the highest percentage of children living in grandparent-headed households.

-- Women make up almost two-thirds of grandparent caregivers. Grandmother-headed households are more likely to live in poverty.

-- Black children are more likely than other ethnic group to live with only one grandparent, usually a grandmother.

-- More than a quarter of children cared for by grandparents live in poverty compared to 19 percent of children living with parents.

-- Grandparents care for children of all ages, but 73 percent of the children are older than 6.

Last updated: 9:41 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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