Monday, September 8, 2008

Support, Part 1

In the mid-1990s, in New York City, a group of 15 custodial grandmothers came together for a course in empowerment training. They met at the Graduate School of Social Services at Fordham University. Their median age was 64, and among them, they were raising over 30 grandchildren. Only two were married with living husbands. The oldest was 75.

The Graduate School developed the class specifically for these African-American grandmom/moms. It covered topics like communicating with grandchildren and talking about sex, HIV/AIDS, and drugs to legal issues and how to negotiate systems. At the end of the 6-week class, none of the participants wanted the sessions to end. So they formed their own support group and began making presentations to other custodial grandparents. They became advocates in their local communities, and at least one grandmother “demanded to be placed on an advisory board so that she could have direct involvement in policy.” The results, the authors of this pilot program concluded, was a “discovery” that grandparents raising grandchildren have “a plethora of needs,” but they also have “formidable strengths and resilience” to meet them.

The New York grandmothers were not the first to get together to learn, support each other, and become advocates for their cause, but since the 1990’s, as the numbers of grandparent-as-parent headed households increased, support groups for custodial grandparents formed in communities across the country. Today, you can find them in every state. After nearly three years, several phone calls, and a 15-minute drive that turned into an hour drive because I relied on MapQuest and got lost, I finally arrived—late—at my first Kinship Connection Support Group meeting in downtown Columbus.

By the time I got there, the meeting had already progressed to the “Any New News” segment of the agenda. About the room, a dozen or more people sat (two men, the rest women). A couple of children were finishing up their pizza and soda at some tables in the back. The women were eager to discuss new news, which in this case, is old news: money, or more specifically, the lack of money to support raising their grandchildren.

Some custodial grandparents continue working when they take custody of their grandchildren, but others retire early to start their new full-time job as caretaker to young children. Either way, the operating budget gets slimmer and spreads only so far. Realizing this, government agencies have instituted cash support for kinship caregivers—that is for some kinship caregivers and not for others.

For instance, in our state, we have what is called a Kinship Permancy Incentive Program. Qualifying custodial grandparents can get an initial payment of $1,000 and $500 payments every six months up to $3,600 if—a big if—they took custody of their grandchildren AFTER 2005. Other conditions apply as well, having to do with household income, background checks, and court orders, but it is this one—the arbitrary (it seems) cutoff date, that raises some people's ire. “My grandchildren are teenagers now. I took custody of them when they were little—before 2005. So, I can’t get the KPI.” This woman is facing foreclosure. Yet, she did not appear to be bitter or helpless. She has agreed to let me interview her for this blog, which I will do in the coming weeks.

Another young woman explained that her parents took custody of several children who are not related by blood. At first, these children were considered foster children, and the State supported their caregivers with a monthly stipend. But case workers in Children’s Services allegedly convinced the family to take legal custody. As we custodial grandparents know, the stipend for someone with legal custody is considerably less than that for a foster parent. Worse, this family could get no financial support, it seems, because the children are not “kin.” Some other issues may be involved, including language barriers, but the point is they are in financial straights because they reached out to help children whose own parents could not or would not take care of them. How much money will this family save the State when these children grow up to attend college instead of taking up a prison cell?

As I sat listening to this young woman advocating/ interpreting for her mother, what struck me was her clear narrative about the family’s predicament (in a language that must have been at least her second as she was from Ecuador) and the avalanche of information and advice that came pouring from the other women. This topic took over the meeting, but by the end of the discussion, the young woman had the name of an attorney to contact and some specific steps to take. She also had, I hope, the satisfaction of knowing how well she advocated for her family.

I read about the New York City grandmothers support group when I first became a Mom Again. Since then, I have been searching for such a group, and now I have found one. I cannot say yet how much benefit I will get from attending meetings, or how much I can contribute to the group—but attend I will. I will also talk to the other members and invite them to contribute to this blog. I hope we can convey on these pages at least half of the information, support, and wisdom I saw displayed in my first meeting.

As always, your feedback is welcome.

Mom Again

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