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Monday, April 20, 2009

Youth Speak Out for Grandparents Who Raised Them

“Without my grandmother, I wouldn’t have the values I have today,” said Victor, 21, a San Francisco State University communications student, who spent most of his teenage years in and out of trouble.

“My grandmother was my savior,” declared Yasmine, 19.

And Sean, 17, recounted how his grandmother “was a model for the whole community,” often helping children in her Oakland neighborhood do their math and science lessons and making sure that kids who’d been suspended from school came to her house to do their homework until they were back on track.

The three spoke out on behalf of their grandmothers at a special session held during the California Coalition for Youth conference on March 23 in Sacramento, Calif. A growing number of U.S. grandparents--50 percent more than a decade ago--help raise their grandchildren, according to the Brookdale Grandparent Caregiver Information Project at the University of California, Berkeley, Center on Aging.

Mixed with their deep appreciation, though, these young people expressed concern about the struggles with frail health, meager finances and grudging bureaucracy that often wear down their elders. Grandparents often find themselves straining to maintain their strength to keep up with children consigned to their care for reasons ranging from the parents’ incarceration to drug addiction to military deployment.

U.S. Census figures for 2007 show that 6.2 million grandparents live in households with children under age 18. More than half of these “grandfamilies” are ethnic minorities. In California alone, elders live in nearly 1 million households with children. Almost half of them are Latinos, and another quarter are Asians or African Americans.

“Young people understand the strengths of their grandparents,” said Nell Bernstein of New America Media, who moderated the workshop. Bernstein is the author of All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated (New Press, 2005).

Victor, who said he was in trouble from ages 12 to 17, credited his grandmother’s philosophy and resourcefulness for strengthening his values. “She could provide for the whole family with practically nothing,” he said of her ability to keep everyone fed, even in hard times.

Today, however, Victor’s grandmother is wheelchair-bound. He, Sean and Yasmine spoke of the daily struggles that grandfamilies face. Their observations and recommendations for change echoed many of those from experts and advocates in the field of aging.

Sean, now a media intern at New America Media, said his whole neighborhood seemed to lean on his grandmother’s inner strength--until it was sapped by arthritis, diabetes and a nasty fall. Assistance should be available, he said, to make her and other seniors’ homes wheelchair accessible, help them with paperwork and provide transportation to doctors’ appointments.

Yasmine called for more outreach to children, especially when the caregiving tables get turned. When she was 10, her grandmother was diagnosed with lung cancer.

“No one was checking in with us, and I couldn’t think of who to call for help,” she said. With few resources and little money for medications and nursing assistance, Yasmine found herself helping both her grandmother and a younger cousin who lived with them.

Modest help for grandparents and other family members raising children is available at varying levels depending on the state.

“Grandmothers create miracles every day,” said conference panelist Beverly Johnson of Sacramento’s Lilliput Children’s Services. She directs the local Kinship Support Services Program (KSSP), a $4 million effort spread thinly among 20 of California’s 58 counties that meet the program’s criteria.

KSSP offers to low-income families that qualify in-home case management, emergency funds, and referral to agencies that can assist them in navigating the legal, healthcare or educational systems.

Nationally, a coalition of advocacy organizations is spearheading an effort to implement the Fostering Connections Act, which Congress enacted last fall. Among the new law’s provisions, it allows states to enable low-income family members to receive guardianship assistance payments to care for young relatives who had been in foster care.

Until now, grandparents were denied most financial and other aid given to non-relative foster parents unless they underwent the arduous process of becoming licensed foster-care providers.

“What’s more important is that grandparents should be respected for the contributions they are making to their families and communities,” noted Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United in Washington, D.C. The organization, which is part of the national coalition, is advocating for full implementation of the new law as well as the passage of other laws now pending in Congress.

“They say it takes a whole village to raise a child,” Victor observed on the youth panel. “But now it’s time for the village to give back to our grandparents.”

By Paul Kleyman, New American Media


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