Commission Listens to Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Margo Chevers remembers the night she was called to take in her two granddaughters, once almost 10 months, the other 23 months.
She wasn't prepared for the physical and emotional toll or the financial needs. It was, she said, a wake-up call.
"I dropped $50 just to get through the night," Chevers said of the supplies she had to get - diapers, food, pajamas. And there was the "mental calisthenics of how I'm going to get through the day."
Within two years she was facing a major health crisis, and saw her financial stability endangered. She struggled to find resources in her small town of Wales.
And with "two beautiful babies" in her arms, she recalled sliding to the kitchen floor in tears, wondering how she was going to get through it. Chevers met up with another grandparent raising a grandson and together created a support group in Brimfield.
"I don't need to tell you this. ... This is your story, too," she told the group gathered at the Ralph Froio Senior Center on Monday night. "We need other people to know what we're going through."
The gathering was the first of eight listening sessions across the state by Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. The panel included Chevers and fellow Commissioner Ilene Mitchell, an assistant deputy court administrator for Probate and Family Court in Boston; Catherine Madden, project manager of the Opioid Task Force for the Office of the Attorney General, and Abigail Taylor, assistant attorney general for the Child and Youth Protection Unit for the AGO.
The listening sessions are to get input to develop priority goals for the commission, created by the Legislature in 2008 and spearheaded by Chairman and former Attleboro state Rep. John Lepper, also a grandparent raising grandchildren.
A state senator and current representative also sit on 14-member commission, and this year was able to get funding to hire a program coordinator, Colleen Pritoni. It's held listening sessions in the past and hosted a conference and legislative to advocate for its constituents. It also hopes to hold regional workshops and a "grand-families" fun day.
"We are in a position to try to ask the state to put in more money," Mitchell said. "There's no question that this is something we are actually aware of."
A number of custodial grandparents spoke up Monday about the difficulty in getting resources in this rural area, different funding by different agencies, unequal support and lack of safe housing and caregiver respite.
"I've been raising my granddaughter as long as you have been," said one woman. "It's a really big problem with inconsistency."
For example, children awarded to custody through the Department of Children and Families have access to a scholarship program, children going through Probate Court do not.
Others spoke of the difficulty in finding housing, being denied free lunch for the grandchildren or simply the difficulty in finding resources. They've banded together to form their own support group.
"I get no help, no clothing benefits, $50 for food stamps," said a woman whose granddaughter is dealing with mental illness. "We have so many grandparents in South County with no resources."
"Not everybody tells you everything," said another grandmother. "We don't get all the information we could use. ... the playing field really needs to be leveled."
"We have tried to advocate for each other," yet another said. "I'm OK but a lot of other grandparents aren't. They're on fixed incomes and there just isn't enough money for the needs that need to be filled."
Some of those problems could be solved almost immediately through the half-dozen or so agencies that had representatives on hand to answer questions. Others might be more long-term goals, such as housing for custodial grandparents similar to the Treehouse in Easthampton.
Director of the Council on Aging Vincent Marinaro pointed out that the entire county has been designated "age friendly," and encouraged members of the support group to add their voices at meetings on priorities.
"The Berkshires gets things done on a grassroots level," he said, echoing Berkshire Probate Register Francis B. Marinaro, who said his court is in touch with a lot of agencies that work with children and families, from DCF to the Brien Center.
Chevers' story started about a dozen years ago and the numbers of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren has continued to climb.
There are an estimated 7 million grandparents across the country living with grandchildren younger than age 18; 2.7 million are responsible for their grandchildren's basic needs.
Between 2000 and 2014, the number of grandparents living with grandchildren in Massachusetts has jumped by 22 percent. Nearly 35,000 have custody, up from 28,000; and nearly a third of cases, there are no parents present.
Their are a range of reasons for why children end up with their grandparents but the primary ones are drugs, mental health, domestic abuse, illness, homelessness, incarceration, military deployment, and death.
"The reasons didn't change much," said Mitchell. "It's pretty much the same reasons because drugs and mental health were the top two reasons 15 years ago."
But drug addiction, largely because of the opiate/heroin epidemic, may have increased the number of children left parentless. A survey of support groups found estimates of up to 80 percent are raising grandchildren because their parents are addicts and an estimated 31 percent of those children were born addicted.
"What you are doing is awesome and difficult and challenging and inspiring," state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier told the gathering. "And I don't know how to thank you enough and honestly, I don't think we as a community recognize what you're doing and how difficult it is."
Tags: grandparents, listening tour, senior center, senior citizens, state commission,