Missing: a generation grandparents fill breach


For many grandparents, one of the joys of having grandchildren is being able to spoil them shamelessly, leaving discipline to the youngsters' parents.

This simple pleasure is increasingly lost to many grandparents. A growing number are becoming the sole care-givers of their grandchildren, taking the place of a missing middle generation.

To help these second-time parents cope with the physical, emotional and financial strains of raising a new generation of children, a public support group for grandparents -- the Intergenerational Village Project -- is forming in Baltimore. The group will hold its first meeting today, at 12:30 p.m. in the Park Heights Family Support Center on Pimlico Road.

"I decided to form a support group because there are so many grandparents who are in this situation," said project coordinator Claudia Dock. "We need a group that will help grandparents find the resources they need to deal with parenting issues."

As she speaks, sunlight streams through an open window in her living room, casting a natural spotlight on a framed portrait of a woman carrying a small child on her back.

The artwork seems appropriate in Ms. Dock's home.

After devoting almost 20 years to raising her two daughters, Ms. Dock was planning to go to college and pursue a career in social services. Those plans were put on hold 12 years ago when her eldest daughter, Lisa Hamlin, gave birth to Kionna, a 7-pound baby girl.

'A stable upbringing'

"At the time, I had no stability in my life," said Ms. Hamlin, 29, a recovering heroin addict who has been clean for more than a year and is living with her mother and daughter in a small Poe Avenue apartment. "I was living on the street. I didn't want that for Kionna. I wanted her to have a stable upbringing, and I figured no one could do it better than my mom."

Ms. Hamlin left Kionna, then an infant, in her mother's care and entered a rehabilitation program in upstate New York. She thought she would be in recovery after a few months. It took almost 10 years.

The story is a familiar one, Baltimore Circuit Court judges say.

"I see these kinds of cases in my courtroom every day," said Judge David B. Mitchell, who presides over Baltimore's juvenile court. "Over the last several years, we have experienced a greater reliance on grandparents as caretakers for their grandchildren. Usually it's because the parents are incapable of caring for the kids."

The U.S. Census Bureau reports that about a million children -- TC to 2 percent of all the children in the country -- live with a grandparent in a home where there is no parent and the grandparent is the sole provider and care-giver.

Of the 1.1 million children in Maryland, about 102,000 live with a family member who is not a parent. It is not known how many of those children are living with grandparents.

The result is what is being called a "skipped generation." Many of these children have lost one or both parents to the lure of drugs. In some cases, the parents were abusive or neglectful.

"Many grandparents step in to prevent the children from being separated or placed in foster care," Judge Mitchell said. "And they do it with little help or recognition."

As a result, grandparents often find that being a parent the second time around is more difficult. For starters, many don't have the resources they once did.

Ms. Dock, a full-time student at Morgan State University, receives a small amount of assistance from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, a federal program. Each month, she gets food stamps and a $164 check.

If Kionna were cared for by strangers, her foster parents probably would receive three times the financial support for the same care, said Maureen McKinley, a foster care supervisor for the Harford County Department of Social Services. Outsiders are paid more because they have foster care licenses, she said. Grandparents may apply for a license, but they must first relinquish custody of their grandchildren to the state.

"A lot of times the frustration of what they would have to go through to get assistance prevents them from seeking help," said Kim Bivens, program director of the People's Law Project for the Community Law Center in Baltimore, a group that provides free legal information. "They'd rather just try to make ends meet on their own."

Emotional burdens

In addition to the financial hardship, some grandparents carry significant emotional burdens, said Dr. Michael Guggerty, a psychologist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital who works with grandparents facing the emotional adjustment of raising children again.

"Some grandparents are forced into the role," he said. "They don't really want to be parenting. Often, they harbor feelings of anger and resentment toward their own children."

As they deal with these issues, many grandparents look to support groups such as Ms. Dock's. Dozens of groups have formed throughout the United States in the past 10 years.

Maryland is home to six grandparent support groups. Two of them are in Baltimore, but neither is open to the public. One is run by the Social Security Administration for its employees, and the other, at Harford Heights Elementary School, is open only to grandparents who care for students enrolled at that school.

The Intergenerational Village Project is a collaborative effort of the United Seniors of Maryland, Advocates for Children and Youth and the Park Heights Family Support Center.

For information, call Ms. Dock or Charlotte Mason at the support center, (410) 578-0244.

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