Parents Again: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren

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Darlene Kometh and her husband Bob, live a quiet life in their small, but airy Star Valley home garnished with Kokopellis and muted Southwest décor.

The Komeths had raised their children, and were settling into their carefree retirement years when they received a phone call from Florida two years ago that ended their hard-earned leisure.

The Komeths learned the unsavory details of their then 12-year-old grandson's young life unfolding on

the other side of the continent: an emotionally unstable mother mixed up with a convicted felon who was putting their grandson, Tommy (name changed), out on the streets of New York to beg for food. Worst of all, the Komeths discovered that Tommy -- whose biological father, Darlene's son, was incarcerated and unavailable to take custody of his own son -- was about to fall into the foster home system.

The Komeths stepped in. The court removed all of Tommy's mother's parental rights. The Komeths flew back West with Tommy and they've had him ever since.

"My biggest problem is resentment," said Darlene, 70. "I have my dollhouse home."

"And our RV," Bob added.

"My son is an alcoholic and in prison, and I resent the fact that we have to start all over," said Darlene. "But in the end, it was our choice to have (Tommy) with us."

And more and more grandparents, for a variety of reasons, are raising their grandchildren. In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that nearly 115,000 grandparents in Arizona lived in a household with one or more of their minor grandchildren; in 52,000 of those cases, the grandparent was responsible for the primary care of the grandchild.

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Rose Bustamante has cared for her grandson Alberto since he was born. "I haven't had a life since I started having grandchildren because of my own kids," said Bustamante. "Grandparents are the last hope."

The Census Bureau released a supplemental study in 2003 that estimated an increase in grandparents caring for grandchildren to almost 120,000. In a mere three years, the number of grandparents providing the basic needs for their grandchildren leaped 73 percent to 71,000.

"I think the family structure is falling apart," said William Houdek, a counselor at Rim Guidance Center. "We're having to deal with the decentralization of the family and drugs and alcohol are a big part of it."

Houdek specializes in child therapy, and works with increasing numbers of children in kinship care, or a domestic living arrangement where a child is cared for by a family member.

According to Arizona's Children Association, a nonprofit child advocacy organization, 95 abuse and neglect cases are reported to law enforcement officials each day. Meanwhile, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health ranked Arizona in the top eight U.S. states of persons needing substance abuse treatment, but not getting it.

"Ten to 15 percent of all my kids are being raised by grandparents," said Houdek. "Most of the grandparents I work with take them because they see a need."

Vera Eccles, 70, is raising her three grandchildren, a 17-year-old boy, and 13-year-old twin girls. She's had them since the twins were still in diapers. Eccles adopted the trio, but years of guilt, sadness and confusion followed.

"To see your grown daughter in a state of using crystal meth for that many years was difficult," said Eccles. "I did an awful lot of crying. I asked myself what could I have done differently? And then to take on other kids, am I going to make the same mistakes?"

Eccles finally found acceptance.

"There's no shame in this. Once your children become adults, they're making their own decisions, but it takes a while to get there."

And without support, getting there takes longer. Of all the families headed by grandparents in the Rim country, only a handful show up at the grandparents support group. The group, facilitated by the Payson Unified School District Parent Resource Center meets the third Wednesday of the month.

"It upsets their whole retirement," said Christi Walton, PUSD parent community liaison. "In fact, a lot of times they can't come."

Many grandparents, living on fixed incomes, struggle to survive on Social Security payments. Bob Kometh works at Ace Hardware to make ends meet.

Rose Bustamante, has subsisted for years on food bank donations, and $271 a month from the Department of Economic Security.

"That's not even enough to buy groceries," said Bustamante. "Sometimes I have to sell tamales to have enough money to buy shoes."

Bustamante's 14-year-old grandchild, Alberto, has been under her care since his infancy. Because of her age, she's able to spend more time with him -- not the case with her own children.

Bustamante was a single mother and worked two jobs to support her family.

While she was away, her children roamed the neighborhood unsupervised, and that's when they started using drugs and making bad decisions.

"The kids get mad at me and say, ‘You were never there for me,'" said Bustamante. "I tell them that's because I was working trying to support you. You can't point the finger at me."

Bustamante said she rescued her grandson from her daughter, Alberto's mother, who was in an abusive relationship.

"I couldn't turn my back on him," said Bustamante. "Alberto is better with me."

Although 27 percent of these grandparent-headed households in Arizona are living in poverty, kinship care crosses all economic and social strata.

Cliff Potts, former mayor of Payson and local real estate broker, is raising his daughter's three children ages 7, 6 and 3 after she was evicted from her apartment. When Potts took custody of his grandchildren, he found, as many grandparents do, medical and dental deficiencies. Potts said he enrolled the children in Arizona's Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS) -- an option for many grandparents without the money to pay for medical costs or the luxury of an employee-sponsored group health plan.

"Their teeth had been terribly neglected," said Potts. "We had to play catch up on that stuff."

Potts said he's conflicted about the message he's sending to this new generation of children.

"Are we teaching these kids that it's OK to dump your kids on grandpa?" said Potts. "My biggest fear is that I don't screw up twice."

Doris Robinson-Wait, a family law attorney who has worked on many of these cases, said grandparents should secure, at minimum, a power of attorney for medical requirements. The power of attorney grants caregivers the authority to make health care decisions.

From there, Robinson-Wait suggested seeking professional legal counsel to pursue further custodial action.

And Robinson-Wait stressed the importance of communication with an adult child before taking legal action to remove a grandchild from an unsafe situation.

"(The grandparents should) try to convince the child to give them the kids," Robinson-Wait said. "The alternative is to make a report to Child Protective Services. CPS has to do an investigation. The grandparent needs to be really sure of what they're doing."

The breadth of services available to grandparents is enormous. AARP is hosting their Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Conference in Tucson, Friday, April 29. For more information, call (520) 626-5161.

Grandparents should call the PUSD Parent Resource Center at (928) 472-5735. Grandparent support group meetings start at 6:30 p.m. every third Wednesday of the month at 514 W. Wade Lane. The group will meet again May 18. Also contact AARP's Grandparent Information Center at (888) 687-2277 or AARP's Arizona state office, (866) 389-5649.

DES Child Protective Services mans a 24-hour Child Abuse Hotline, (888) 767-2445.

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