The number of people struggling to raise their grandchildren has skyrocketed, but a fresh round of budget cuts this year has shut down programs that used to help them, according to a June analysis by the Morrison Institute for Public Policy.
The problem hits especially hard in Rim Country, with a large retirement population.
“Clearly the concurrent trend of more grandparent caregivers and fewer support services is not a winning combination for Arizona’s children,” concluded Andrea Whitsett, the project manager for the institute, which is a public policy research think tank operated by Arizona State University.
The report used census numbers to conclude that 2.6 million grandparents are now providing primary, custodial support for their grandchildren, which represents an 8 percent increase since 2000. An estimated 6.7 million grandparents are now living with their grandchildren, although they may not have legal custody.
In Arizona in 2009, 65,000 grandparents were providing primary care for 77,000 children. Another 168,000 grandparents were living with their grandchildren, although they didn’t have legal custody.
That represented a nearly 40-percent increase in the number of grandparents with primary responsibility in just four years.
The increase has been pronounced among whites, where the number of grandparents with custody has jumped 19 percent.
Whitsett concluded that many grandparents find themselves trying to get help from “a tangled web of well-intentioned support services that may prove difficult for families to access.”
Local groups offering services say that they have faced a steady increase in the number of grandparents seeking help dealing with the challenges of raising their own children’s children.
The Arizona Children’s Association runs an office in Payson, where caseworkers can help grandparents get help from the system. For instance, often they can get their grandchildren on medical insurance programs like the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System. Sometimes, it makes sense for grandparents to seek formal custody or even become foster parents to their own grandchildren, which means they would qualify for state payments and other assistance.
Census figures show that 16 percent of children in Gila County are living with someone besides their parents, which includes their grandparents. Figures show that 27 percent of the children in Gila County live below the poverty line.
Those families headed by grandparents are much more likely to have to struggle with money issues than most families. For instance, in Arizona, the median family income is $57,855. However, the median family income of grandparents taking care of their grandchildren in absence of the parent is just $32,325.
The Arizona Children’s Association urges grandparents struggling to cope with the demands of their return to parenting to call for help and to attend regular family and parenting workshops sponsored locally.
However, the Morrison Institute Study suggests that the programs that can provide help this year took a hit as a result of state budget cuts.
Whitsett noted that “grandparents often become primary caregivers due to difficult family circumstances. In many cases, parental absence is the result of substance abuse, incarceration, psychiatric disorder, child abuse, neglect or a death. For grandparents, this means their role is complicated by a strained relationship with their own child, guilt about their performance as a parent and grave concern for their grandchild’s well being.”
As a result, many grandparents have to use retirement savings and suffer significantly higher rates of depression and stress.
Unfortunate, as the struggles of these child-rearing grandparents have broadened, the help available has dwindled.
For instance, the state in 2007 set up the Arizona Grandparent Kinship Care Support program, which provided various subsidies — including a $300 grant to help grandparents buy things like beds when grandchildren move in, plus a $75 per-month stipend for clothing. The project was set up in substantial measure to help keep children out of the far more expensive foster care system.
However, the Legislature cut out all funding for the program this year to help balance the budget.
In addition, grandparents can seek small grants from the state’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program. The program had provided extra help for grandparents, once again to keep children out of the foster care system. However, the Legislature also eliminated the bulk of that funding for grandparents. Finally, the state dramatically reduced funding to help provide daycare for low-income families. Many grandparents had been relying on those subsidies to provide respite care or to help care for their grandchildren when they returned to work to try to help cover the mounting bills.
That has left many struggling grandparents with no place left to turn but community organizations like food banks. In Rim Country, groups like Payson Helping Payson and the St. Vincent de Paul Food Bank have faced a sharp increase in pleas for assistance.
“Grandparents are doing all they can and community organizations and churches are trying to help,” said Oralia Gracia-Alinea, with the Family Resource Center in Mesa, which also gets requests for assistance from Rim Country families. “But those groups are short on resources too. Often the faith community can only help with one utility bill or a bag of groceries. Community assistance is not sufficient or consistent.”
The Morrison Institute study concluded with a call for more help for these struggling families, especially since, with the right assistance, grandparents can provide loving, nurturing care that keeps children out of the foster care system, where the state could have to pay far more.
The report recommended streamlining the system to make it much easier for grandparents to win temporary custody or guardianships that would give them access to the same kinds of support systems available to foster children — like counseling and medical care.