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More grandparents taking on parental role for grandchildren

​By Alejandra Cancino - Associated Press | Tue, February 16, 2016

CHICAGO (AP) — When Debra Aldridge became her grandson's primary caregiver, she was making $7.50 per hour as a cook. The alternative for the newborn, she was told, was to put him up for adoption.
 
"I took one look at the little fella, and that was it," said Aldridge, now 62. "I couldn't let go."
 
For more than 11 years, Aldridge, who is divorced and lives in Chicago, has struggled to feed, house and clothe her "baby," Mario. As she ages, Aldridge sinks deeper into poverty.

Nationwide, 2.7 million grandparents are raising grandchildren, and about one-fifth of those have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according to census figures.

Their ranks are increasing. The number of grandparents raising grandchildren is up 7 percent from 2009. Experts say the trend is likely to continue as the nation responds to the opiate epidemic. Military deployment and a growth in the number of women incarcerated are other factors forcing grandparents to step into parental roles.
 
Already, child welfare agencies are reporting an increase in the number of children, especially infants, taken from parents battling drug addictions and mental health issues. After years of declines, children in foster care rose by nearly 1 percent in 2013 and by 3.5 percent in 2014 to more than 415,000.
 
The increase comes as states are placing more foster children with relatives in response to research showing that children fare better with family rather than in foster care.
 
There is an economic incentive, too. Generations United, a nonprofit that advocates for "kinship families," says taxpayers would see significant savings by keeping children out of foster care and placing them with relatives.
 
But at the same time, the group says there is no comprehensive framework to keep these kinship families stable. Crucial programs, such as legal services and support groups, "exist only in small pockets of the country," it said.
 
Those support services are something many grandparents raising grandchildren need. Many are living on fixed incomes and managing chronic illnesses. About a quarter of grandparents raising grandchildren have a disability.
 
"People who step forward, step forward because there is a crisis in their family and apparently don't take into account their own limitations," said Esme Fuller-Thomson, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto, who has researched grandparent caregiving in the United States.
 
Maria Nanos, executive director of the Center for Law and Social Work in Chicago, said that when the state is involved, grandparents receive free legal help from the center, but informal caregivers navigate guardianship on their own. The center usually receives funds from the state's Department of Aging to help those grandparents. But Illinois has operated without a budget since July, so the center has not received the money this fiscal year.
 
"We have to turn people down," Nanos said.
 
Some states offer financial aid for informal kinship families.
 
In Georgia, grandparents older than 55 can get a $100 monthly subsidy per grandchild. They also have access to grants and could qualify for subsidies similar to those of foster parents (between $14.60 and $18.80 per day). But access to the assistance, which is often housed in different agencies, can be tricky, if not impossible.
 
To help relatives navigate the complex web of services, some states have created kinship navigators.
 
Lynn Urvina, is one of about a dozen kinship navigators in Washington state. She said grandparents call her seeking information about support groups, obtaining guardianship and financial help to pay bills. Every year, her case files grow.
 
"In our area, methamphetamines have had a huge impact," said Urvina, who is raising, along with her husband, a 12-year-old granddaughter.
 
Navigators in Washington serve 30 of 39 counties, with multiple counties overseen by one person. Some counties include rural communities where grandparents have little access to services, Urvina said.
 
"If all grandparents walked away and say, 'we can't do it,' there would be no homes for these kids," Urvina said.
 
To boost assistance to kinship families, Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are working on a bipartisan bill that would reimburse states for a portion of money spent on such services as substance abuse prevention and kinship navigators.
 
As her grandson enters his teens, Aldridge, the Chicago grandmother, said she knows she'll need more resources to clothe, feed and keep him out of trouble.
 
To help make ends meet, she stands in food lines, taking two buses to reach the food depository. But she won't give up on Mario.
 
"He needs me," Aldridge said.
 
___
 
EDITOR'S NOTE — Alejandra Cancino is studying health care and long-term care issues as part of a 10-month fellowship at the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which joins NORC's independent research and AP journalism. The fellowship is funded by The SCAN Foundation

 About this story

​This AP story was originally released on February 16, 2016. It is estimated that approximately one-half the world’s population receives news and information from The Associated Press each day, which suggests the reach and penetration of each of these stories.
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In this Jan. 29, 2016, photo, Debra Aldridge, right, continues to make dinner as her grandson Mario Hendricks talks to a cousin about being able to go to a sleep-over at the cousin's home, at her home on Chicago's South Side. Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren. About a fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according the Census figures. More grandparents are taking on the role of parents for their grandkids, as social service agencies try to place foster children in so-called kinship families. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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In this photo taken Jan. 29, 2016, Debra Aldridge begins dinner for her and her grandson, Mario, at her home on Chicago's South Side. Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren. About a fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according the Census figures. More grandparents are taking on the role of parents for their grandkids, as social service agencies try to place foster children in so-called kinship families. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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In this Jan. 29, 2016, photo, Mario Hendricks heads up the stairs of his grandmother's home on Chicago's South Side. Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren. About a fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according the Census figures. More grandparents are taking on the role of parents for their grandkids, as social service agencies try to place foster children in so-called kinship families. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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In this Jan. 29, 2016, photo, Debra Aldridge, right, poses for a portrait with her grandson, Mario Hendricks, at her home on Chicago's South Side. Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren. About a fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according the Census figures. More grandparents are taking on the role of parents for their grandkids, as social service agencies try to place foster children in so-called kinship families. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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In this Jan. 29, 2016, photo, Debra Aldridge, right, listens to the pleas from her grandson, Mario Hendricks, on a sleep-over at a cousin's home, at her home on Chicago's South Side. Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren. About a fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according the Census figures. More grandparents are taking on the role of parents for their grandkids, as social service agencies try to place foster children in so-called kinship families. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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In this Jan. 29, 2016, photo, Debra Aldridge, left, continues to make dinner as her grandson Mario Hendricks becomes frustrated about the possibility of not being able to go to a sleep-over at a cousin's home, at her home on Chicago's South Side. Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren. About a fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according the Census figures. More grandparents are taking on the role of parents for their grandkids, as social service agencies try to place foster children in so-called kinship families. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

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In this Jan. 29, 2016, photo, Debra Aldridge, right hugs and recites a prayer with her grandson Mario Hendricks, before the boy departed for a sleep-over at a cousin's home, at her home on Chicago's South Side. Nationwide, there are 2.7 million grandparents raising grandchildren. About a fifth have incomes that fall below the poverty line, according the Census figures. More grandparents are taking on the role of parents for their grandkids, as social service agencies try to place foster children in so-called kinship families. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)