Grandparents Are Parents Again

June 22, 2010 | The Indianapolis Star |  Link to article

Chad Hines, 14, gives a lot of the credit for his academic success to the woman he calls "Mama."

Mama is not his mother. The Mama who worked tirelessly to make sure Chad would apply himself at school is Martha White, his grandmother.

"Without her," said the sophomore at Providence Cristo Rey charter high school, "I don't think I would have made it this far."

And he may be right.

Researchers have found that students who move around a lot, switch schools or are exposed to violence suffer academically. Teachers often describe these students as distracted or hard to reach. In that sense, living with grandparents is almost certainly better than living with a parent involved in drugs or crime, and probably better than facing the possibility of moving from one foster home to another.

Children living with grandparents still tend to lag behind their peers, though it's hard to tell how much of that is because of the lives they had while still with their parents. And the unusual living arrangements can take a toll on both child and grandparent.

Still, more than 8,600 grandparents in Central Indiana have stepped up to raise their children's children, and more than 60,000 statewide.

And the number appears to be growing. From 2007 to 2008, it increased by 21 percent, according to the U.S. Census' American Community Survey.

So groups such as The Villages of Indiana are seeking ways to help.

A stable home

White has been Chad's legal guardian since he was 6 months old. Both of his parents were incarcerated at the time, and currently have no regular contact with him. She took Chad "to keep him from going into foster care," she said.

"I really don't know where he would be at this particular time if I did not have him," said White, 71. "My thoughts are he might be less fortunate than he is."

Last week, Chad attended a minority engineering advancement program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. His goal: to be an architect.

And his gratitude is directed toward White.

"She's shown me love and kindness and has always been there for me," Chad said. "She's always pushing me and pressuring me to keep me going."

Such stability is critical to a child's academic performance, said Oliver W. Edwards, associate professor and coordinator of the school psychology program at the University of Central Florida.

Obstacles along the way

But the challenges are steep. The relative calm of a grandparent isn't always enough to counteract other turbulence in a child's life.

"Children who have been raised by grandparents generally tend to experience more academic and behavior difficulties than children being raised by their biological parents," Edwards said. That has more to do with the child's background than the grandparents' parenting skills.

"The greatest benefit is the fact a child can remain in safe and familiar surroundings," said Ann Houseworth, spokeswoman for the state Department of Child Services. "It gives the child some stability, maybe a sense of permanency that they'll be staying in a familiar setting."

The arrangements also include unique stresses.

Grandparents have to adjust to being a primary caregiver, as well as navigating the child welfare system.

Many senior guardians are forced to change a comfortable lifestyle; others find themselves financially strapped after adding a new member to the family.

"I think the biggest adjustment for me was really giving up so much of my private life to take care of him," said White, who retired from being a home health aide three years ago.

For the child, Grandma's house could be just another stop in a long line of temporary arrangements that might increase anxiety and fuel behavioral issues.

With a strong support system, however, Edwards said children raised by grandparents "tend to function more effectively at school."

Jonathon Nicholson, 11, is a good example.

His grandmother, Sandy Licho, has looked after him since he was 6 months old. Jonathon's mother is in prison and has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. "It's just so heart-wrenching," said Licho, who officially adopted Jonathon on April 1.

"I just noticed something inside of me to take care of this child, to give him a good home," she said. "Whatever took away from my social life has filled me with my grandson."

Licho, 65, takes the boy on regular trips to the library. And Jonathon is in a sixth-grade honors program at Imagine Life Sciences Academy West charter school.

"He's very smart," said Licho, "but he can also get upset."

A grateful community

Those who work with grandparents such as Licho and White tend to be effusive in their praise.

"We as a community benefit from the graciousness and investment of these grandparents," said Sharon Pierce, president and CEO of The Villages of Indiana. "They have this great spirit and commitment in helping these young people achieve their potential."

Said Eva M. Zygmunt-Fillwalk, associate professor of early childhood education at Ball State University's Department of Elementary Education: "I give grandparents who are stepping up in that role so much credit. I have seen kids who do so well when the consistency of care is there, but it is challenging."

To address that challenge, The Villages operates a Family Connection Network that includes 150 children living with their grandparents. The organization offers a respite program for grandparents, as well as legal and educational programs and a variety of support groups, allowing grandparents to exchange parenting ideas.

"I thought I was alone in this endeavor, but all these women are raising grandchildren," Licho said. "If I have a problem, I go to one of these meetings, and I can guarantee you one of these grandmas has a solution."

But other problems arise, such as working with state officials in securing federal funding to help care for a child. Each child receives an annual allowance from the state of $240, plus a one-time allowance of $200 for clothing and $400 for bedding expenses.

To receive a per diem of $25 per day, or $750 a month, a grandparent must obtain a foster care license.

"You do the best with what you have," White said. "Some of us have a fixed income. It would be nice if a law was passed that we could get money for our kids. It is a financial burden, more for some than others."

This summer, the Department of Child Services will launch a pilot program to streamline the process for kinship caregivers "so we can ensure that we guide them in the most appropriate fashion so they can achieve their needs," Houseworth said.

Also, the bipartisan Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 has eased restrictions on placing children with families as well as obtaining funding, according to Tiffany Conway Perrin, senior policy analyst in child welfare for the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy.

"A growing body of research tells us kinship care is a good thing," Perrin said. "Research shows children living with relatives tend to have more positive perceptions and feelings about their placement."

White can speak from experience. All she has to do is look at her grandson -- and be proud.

"I'm very thankful I was able to help him and give him a home," she said. "Not just because he's my grandson, but because I love him and wanted to see him become a person who gave back to society and not take away."

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