More grandparents raising their grandchildren

lori fortin of Athol thought the joys and stresses of raising kids were behind her, but when her daughter got caught in the undertow of opiate addiction, Fortin found herself once again changing diapers, seeking out playgroups, and ultimately gaining custody of her grandchildren through probate court.

Fortin is just one of thousands of grandparents across Massachusetts who are taking a second turn at parenting. US Census data indicate the number of Massachusetts grandparents raising their grandchildren increased by 30 percent over the last decade, twice as fast as the rate nationwide. In 2012, roughly 36,000 grandparents were raising their grandchildren.

Bette Jenks, who is organizing a support group for grandparent caregivers in the North Quabbin region of Massachu-setts, says opiate addictions are driving increasing numbers of grandparents in Massachusetts to take custody of their grandchildren. Mental health issues and other addiction problems also press grandparents into service as caregivers.

John Lepper said he and his wife took custody of their two small grandchildren nearly 30 years ago because their daughter was involved with drugs. “I thought this was something to do with the 1960s counterculture, and it would go away, but it didn’t go away and it isn’t going to go away,” he says.

A former state representative, Lepper chairs a state commission dedicated to raising the awareness of the unique needs of grandparents raising grandchildren. Lepper said the Census statistics probably undercount the number of custodial grandparents. “There’s thousands and thousands of people who are doing the work but don’t want to be involved with the Census survey as they are afraid the (government) will impede what they want to do with their families,” he says.

The grandparents who are open about raising their grandchildren typically gain custody by petitioning probate court or through the Department of Children and Families (DCF), the state’s embattled child welfare agency. The agency, when it removes children from a parent’s home, tries to place them with a relative in what’s called a kinship foster home. According to the DCF website, about a third of all DCF foster homes are kinship homes.

For grandparents serving as kinship foster parents, the DCF route offers a lot more support. They receive monthly stipends as well as clothing, birthday and holiday allotments, child care vouchers, therapy, and other services.

Erin Deveney, DCF’s interim commissioner, says the agency is committed to placing children with relatives and, if those relatives are grandparents, providing help. “In many cases, grandparents are taking on the role as caregiver for their grandchildren, and the department remains committed to assisting them with support and services,” she says.

Lepper says the bulk of grandparents gain custody of their grandchildren the way he did, by petitioning probate court. These court placements don’t provide nearly as much support as DCF, and Lepper says grandparents, with their physical challenges and limited incomes, face a lot of stress.

“In your mid-fifties, you just don’t have the same physical ability,” Lepper says. “My wife and I were doing it together and we were economically OK, but for folks who are doing it by themselves, and particularly those grandmothers who are living in the inner city or who are on public housing and don’t have any money or any legal support, these people have tremendous pressure on them.”

Jenks says the financial, emotional, and physical health of grandparents and other family members is profoundly impacted by the support they get from community professionals. “Some caseworkers get it and are well-equipped to support grandparents,” she says. “They help grandparents find resources and benefits. But a lot of staff aren’t fully aware of the impact that taking the grandkids will have on these families. Without support from DCF, many grandparents jeopardize their own well-being to help out.”

She adds: “It’s not just a DCF issue. The systems grandparents have to access are very complex and complicated. All the agencies that work with families should be paying more attention to this.”

Laura and Gail, whose names were changed to protect the identities of their grandchildren, are both participants in Jenks’s support group. Gail and her husband took her grandson in when his father started abusing drugs. “DCF has been wonderful,” she says. “They are very helpful, and I am so happy I have my grandson in my life. He’s my pride and joy.”

When Laura’s daughter was abusing drugs and unable to care for her children, a DCF worker advised Laura to take custody of the children through probate court. “She told me they would end up in a foster home if I didn’t take them,” she says.

She soon regretted her decision. “She didn’t tell me that I could have applied to be a foster parent. I could have gotten benefits that could have really helped,” she says.

Caring for four traumatized grandchildren while holding down a full-time nursing job proved impossible. “I had a big job. I needed to stay late but I had to run out to pick the kids up in the afternoon at daycare and school,” she says. Her need for flexibility didn’t go over well at work and she ended up being laid off just as she was moving into a new home in Orange to accommodate her growing grandchildren.

As an older worker, she found it difficult to secure a new job. Once her unemployment benefits ended, she exhausted her retirement savings in order to qualify for welfare and other benefits. Her quality of life also suffered.

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“I love my grandkids but I haven’t been able to go out for years,” she says. “It’s hard to go anywhere when you have four kids who are behaving badly. Just as soon as I get the 2 year old calmed down, the 5 year old goes off.”

Linda Enerson is a freelance writer living in Montague.