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Grandparents 'Unsung Heroes'

November 27, 2006
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer

Mary A. hadn't heard from her daughter in a year when the phone rang in the middle of the night.

Her daughter was holed up in a welfare motel in a nearby state and child welfare investigators were closing in. She was lost in a swirling world of alcohol and drugs.

Could she come get the kids?

Within an hour, Mary, 57, was on a bus. The ride back home to Windham County was a blur. Her 6-week-old granddaughter lay nestled against her neck. Her 22-month-old mentally retarded and mentally ill grandson cried softly, rocking in the seat beside her. No diapers, no formula. Just the clothes on their backs.

"I was crying too," Mary said. "It was the longest two-hour ride I ever had."

Twelve years later, Mary, who did not want her full name disclosed because of her daughter's continuing personal troubles, is still raising her two grandchildren. While other grandparents enjoy their retirement traveling the country or going on a cruise, Mary worries about paying her light bill and where her next meal will come from. But with sacrifice, the children are well cared for, healthy and fed.

There are more than 21,000 children being cared for by their grandparents in Connecticut because their parents are unwilling or unable to care for them, according to the latest census. That is more than six times the 3,300 children in foster care, which tends to get the bulk of public attention, advocates say.

Hartford Probate Judge Robert K. Killian Jr. has called grandparents "the unsung heroes" of the child-protection business. If just a small portion of grandparents were to suddenly give their grandchildren to the state, Killian once said, it would throw the foster-care system into chaos.

On Tuesday, more than 200 grandparents are expected to attend a conference dealing with grandparents and kinship care in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford. The conference, which runs from 10 a.m. to noon, will present information on subsidized guardianship, navigating the social service system, school enrollment, probate issues and other services. It is open to the public.

"It's been a long struggle even to get grandparents recognized as caregivers," said Jim Harris, a 75-year-old grandparent from Windsor who is raising his grandchildren. Harris has been helping spearhead legislative initiatives to increase support, as co-chairman of a new AARP Connecticut grandparents task force.

The way the state treats grandparents and foster parents differs greatly.

Foster parents who receive children through the state Department of Children and Families and Superior Court receive a minimum stipend averaging about $740 a month per child. The state provides the children free medical insurance, a social worker for support and other perks such as free access to state beaches and parks.

Grandparents who take custody of their grandchildren through their local probate court receive about $333 a month for the first child through the state Department of Social Services and $100 more a month for each additional child. As Killian recently pointed out in an opinion piece in The Courant, a grandparent would have to take in five grandchildren just to get near the financial support a foster parent gets for one child.

Lydia Ann Slater of North Windham knows how tight money can be. Slater, 68, burned through her late husband's savings, relied on the generosity of her local church and stood in line at the local food pantry in the 10 years she's been caring for her now 12-year-old grandson, Joel.

It got so bad that one year, after her church had given out its annual holiday gifts to families in a nearby homeless shelter, Slater accepted the offer to take the few packages left. That, and a food basket, she said, were Christmas.

While grateful for her church's generosity, Slater says others, including some state agencies, have treated her like a "second-class citizen" when she calls for assistance.

"It's humiliating," Slater said.

Grandparents fail to seek financial and other support that is available to them for different reasons. Some don't do it out of shame, believing in some way they failed with their own children, advocates say. Others simply don't know how to find what's available or get easily lost in the labyrinth of state welfare systems once they try.

The state legislature tried to clear up some of the confusion when it passed the kinship navigator law earlier this year. The law requires DCF and other agencies to correlate all the forms of assistance available to grandparents and other relative caregivers and make it available to them through the state 211 Infoline. The kinship information is expected to be available early next year. The information is also supposed to be handed out when the state gives children to relatives for care.

But giving grandparents financial support similar to foster parents is the next step advocates are fighting for.

Barbara Turner, 52, cries when she talks about it. Turner is raising four grandchildren in Hartford on her own. She's a proud, resourceful, spiritual woman who has worked all her life and is just a few credits away from finally getting her high school diploma.

Turner's walls are adorned with pictures of her smiling children: clean, clothed and well-fed. But her reality is something different.

"In reality, I'm suffering," Turner says, with tears. "It's hard to ask. I've owed my aunt $25 for the longest. She knows I'm good for it. She doesn't bother me for it. But it's hard."

Turner says she gets about $167 per child a month from the state. Her children, all born to a drug-addicted mother, wear hand-me downs instead of the latest fashions. McDonald's is a treat. Entertainment isn't the movies, it's cable TV.

When Turner talks about the need for more state support, she says it isn't about money, it's about fairness. It's not about her, it's about the children and their future.

"I'm a victim, my grandchildren are victims," Turner says. "We didn't choose this life. I'd hate to see another grandparent go through what I had to go through."

Despite the challenges, there is a lot of love in the Turner house. Turner wouldn't have it any other way. To her, the important thing is that the family is together. Turner can't imagine seeing the children separated and bounced around with strangers in foster care.

"My grandchildren are my heart and soul," Turner says, the tears flowing freely. "I live for them. But I will feel better when I can provide for them."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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