Many Gila County families face tough times, with chronically high rates of poverty and unemployment.
That goes double for the rising number of grandparents raising their grandchildren, usually for brief periods, but sometimes for years at a stretch.
“I get calls from grandparents all the time, asking ‘what can I do?’” said Kelly Schuttinga, a caseworker for Arizona’s Children Association, which licenses foster homes and provides support services for families in northern Gila County.
Pam Serski, head of the Arizona’s Children Association office here said the number of grandparents raising children has risen sharply in the past several years and many of those families don’t realize there’s help available.
“The grandparents may be doing an intervention for their own children, taking the grandchildren — especially when there are issues with substance abuse or mental health issues. Sometimes it’s because of divorce or a parent that has to work out of state. And the grandparents are hanging on to the grandchildren to provide some stability.
“So we get calls from a grandparent who will say ‘Child Protective Services is not involved, but I’m having to raise my grandchild.’ I’ve just noticed a real trend — both nationally and locally,” concluded Serski.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports that 5 million children are living with their grandparents, up nearly 10 percent from a decade ago. Such grandparent-households now account for about 7 percent of all families. In addition, about 2 million children live in households headed by other relatives.
A story last week in the Roundup reported higher, apparently incorrect estimates of the percentage of children raised by grandparents based on other, less complete census reports.
Census figures in Gila County show that married couples account for half of the households in the county and “other families” account for 16 percent — which includes grandparent-headed households. About 30 percent of the county’s residents live alone.
About 23 percent of Gila County’s residents are younger than 18 and about 22 percent are older than 65.
Unfortunately, Gila County also suffers one of the highest poverty rates in the state, including 12 percent of all families, 27 percent of all children, 19 percent of residents overall and 33 percent of households headed by women.
Arizona’s Children Association regularly sponsors parent education workshops in Payson, including a session this weekend on attention deficit disorders.
The group’s caseworkers can help parents or grandparents or guardians figure out how to get help from the system or provide referrals to private groups and counselors.
Mostly, the state-funded agency focuses on foster care and on getting children enrolled in the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, which provides health care for low-income children and children in foster care.
The agency can also help grandparents and other relatives caring for children in the absence of the parents become legal guardians, which will generally make the child eligible for AHCCCS, which offers an array of counseling, medical, mental health and other services.
The state Legislature in the past two years has cut hundreds of thousands of people from the AHCCCS rolls, including children living in households with a higher than poverty level income.
However, if grandparents become guardians, the children can qualify for AHCCCS without regard to either the parents’ or grandparents’ income.
Serski said her agency can help grandparents or other relatives go through the process of gaining guardianship, which makes them eligible for key support services.
Sometimes, grandparents or other relatives end up taking responsibility for children after one or both of the parents has gotten into trouble with the courts, often as a result of abuse or neglect charges that end up in the child going into foster care.
In that case, relatives can take the 30-hour training course to become foster parents. Once they qualify, the court may place the grandchild with them. In that case, not only does the child qualify for AHCCCS and other supportive services, but the grandparents can become foster parents, which provides payments of $22 to $24 per day, said Schuttinga.
“I have a lot of foster families that are grandparents,” said Schuttinga.
On the other hand, many grandparents don’t want to go through the courts, for fear of the impact on their struggling children.
“I get calls from grandparents all the time saying ‘what can I do? My daughter has left the kids here. I’ve had them — sometimes for years — and she comes back now and then.’ I say, there’s not a lot you can do unless you have some legal assistance — but a lot of grandparents can’t afford attorneys.”
Many grandparents report an exhausting but ultimately rewarding experience.
“I have had custody of my grandchildren for the past 15 years,” said one grandparent who asked not to be named.
“All their fathers are serving time in federal prison and my adopted daughter is not mentally able to care for the five children. The only assistance that I will accept for them is the state medical. My body and mind are very tired and we are broke most of the time, but I would not trade this wonderful opportunity for the world. I have gained so much from these children and I hope that in some small way I’ve helped them.”
Fortunately, groups like Arizona’s Children Association will help the caregiving relatives negotiate the systems and figure out whether to seek guardianship, involve Child Protective Services or merely seek help from private agencies and counselors.
“There are many, many steps,” said Schuttinga.
Once a child’s in the system, then obviously many agencies come into play. But the majority of grandparents raising grandchildren up here have guardianships or no legal arrangement at all.”
Serski added, “we’re certainly here to assist them with trying to meet some of those challenges and those needs — even if it’s just referring them to the Department of Economic Security or maybe to counseling. We have a lot of community workshops aimed at parenting issues.
“It’s about trying to help anybody who is still working with a child. If they’ll call our office, we’ll help them with the process.”
Grandparents coping with the demands of their sometimes exhausting return to child rearing can also find useful resources online or with various social support organizations in the Valley.
Oralia Gracia-Alinea, of the Family Resource Center in Mesa, said her organization can also help grandparents find the resources they need, in addition to the local help from Arizona’s Children Association.
“They’ve been doing an awesome job for years and obviously I’m not aware of all of the resources in every single area.”
Gracia-Alinea said that parents and grandparents alike have struggled to meet the needs of their children during the recession.
“Many grandparents are stepping up to the plate, where a parent is unwilling or unable.”