Mary Ace had just gotten home from work when her son asked her for a favor. Could she pick up her grandson, 16-month-old Alex, at daycare?
Alex's mother, he explained, had just checked herself into a hospital psych ward after weeks of threatening to hurt herself. She'd even tried to enlist her husband, Mary's son, in a double-suicide pact.
Mary immediately went to the apartment where Alex lived with his mother and two half-sisters. She packed clothes and toys for the children, then went to pick Alex up. He could come home with her, but because Mary's son was also living there, the two little girls had to stay with their babysitter. Mary's son was awaiting trial for a sex crime, and the girls were not allowed near him.
That evening, after Mary settled Alex in at home, she left to get her hair done. As she was sitting quietly in the chair, getting her hair cut, the impact of everything that was happening suddenly struck her. Her son would likely be convicted and sent to prison for years. And who knew how long Alex's mother would be institutionalized?
"I just started bawling," Mary recalls. "I was so scared of what was going to happen. We didn't know what we were going to do."
It was Nov. 29, 2000. Mary had only been married to her second husband, Gary, for a few years. She was 52, and looking forward to vacations, traveling, retirement. Now, she realized, she would have to give it all up to take care of her grandson.
Somehow, she'd always known this day would come. When her son and his wife announced they were going to have a baby, Mary did not react like a typical grandmother. "I was not overjoyed," she says. "I just thought, 'Oh my god, we're going to have to raise this child.'"
Neither her son nor his wife seemed suited for parenting. They couldn't hold jobs. They didn't bother to clean their apartment. The two little girls, Alex's half-sisters, were often neglected.
"I was happy to have a grandchild," says Mary. "But they were not capable of raising him."
Mary's son was eventually convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Before he left, he told his mother, "You raise Alex. Don't let her have him. She'll hurt him."
So the Aces joined the growing ranks of grandparents raising their grandchildren. Nationwide, about 4.5 million children live in homes where their grandparents are the primary caregivers. Another 1.5 million live with other relatives. And the numbers are increasing. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of households headed by grandparents jumped 30% between 1990 and 2000.
In Wisconsin, about 3% of the state's children - more than 46,000 - live with their grandparents, more than half without their parents present. In Dane County, roughly 300 families get financial assistance for taking care of grandchildren.
Rose Roh, a social worker who helps lead a monthly support group for grandparents at the Rainbow Project, a Madison-based nonprofit, suspects the actual numbers are much higher. In the past year, interest in the support group has exploded, and a second monthly meeting was added.
"There are quite a few under the radar," she says, noting that many grandparents are embarrassed by the "stigma" of having adult children who cannot take care of their kids. "It's not something people talk about."
The first few months after Alex moved in were rough for the Aces. They had to adjust to life with a very small child.
"We were freaking out," says Mary. "We didn't sleep through the night for the first two years."
She took a week off work to find daycare and to apply for childcare assistance from the state. The costs came as a shock. "Daycare is like another house payment," says Mary ruefully.
Alex's host of medical and behavioral problems made matters worse. He had trouble sleeping. He got sick so often that Mary used up all of her sick leave and had to start taking vacation days to stay home with him. Alex was born with torticollis, a medical condition in which his head was tilted to one side. He needed physical therapy to correct it, but since the Aces didn't have legal custody, the therapist refused to see Alex until they got written permission from his parents. They eventually did get it, but soon after, Alex's mother left the hospital and disappeared for several months.
"That's when we knew we needed something permanent," says Gary.
The Aces had it relatively easy compared to other grandparents trying to get custody. Mary's son agreed to give them permanent guardianship of Alex. And Alex's mother, once located, seemed uninterested in having her child back.
With permanent guardianship, the Aces could make doctor's appointments and register Alex for school. But his parents retained their legal rights. A judge could return Alex to his mother - even now, after he has lived with his grandparents for seven years.
"His mother would have to petition the court for it," says Gary. "She would have to prove that she could care for him."
They doubt she could. Two years ago, Alex's mother moved out west, without telling them.
"She told Alex she was going to be a nurse in the Army," says Mary. "So he went to school and told his friends that she's in Iraq." She sighs. "For Alex's sake, we don't talk bad about her. She's his mother, he needs to love her and accept her the way she is."
Figuring out what to tell Alex, who is now 8, about his father is more complicated. When he was younger, Alex visited his father in prison without questioning it. But one day, when he was 7 years old, his father sent him a card. Stamped on the envelope was the word "prison." Alex, who had just learned to read, sounded the word out.
"At that point, he realized," says Mary. "He's getting to where he wants to know what his father did. I know I'm going to have to speak to him somehow."
But Mary herself hasn't accepted her son's crime. She feels guilty that he's in prison, away from Alex.
Last month, at the monthly support meeting, Mary reflected on her two grown sons. One is happily married and expecting his first child. The other is in prison for a terrible crime. How, she wondered out loud, had she screwed up so badly?
Ethel Dunn of the Wisconsin chapter of Grandparents United for Children's Rights was leading the meeting that day. She responded forcefully: "You did not screw up. And don't walk around feeling guilty!" Dunn glanced around at the assembled grandparents, most of whom had adult children with mental health issues, criminal records or substance abuse problems. "Did you take your child by the hand and lead them to their first drug party?" she demanded.
Time and again, Dunn says, addiction is the key reason parents abandon their children: "What happens is they care more for drugs and alcohol than they do their own kids. It's not their parents who screwed up."
The world is not reliable
Wendy VanDusen is a 55-year-old woman who has never been married and never had children. Yet, a few years ago, she suddenly found herself caring for her great-nephew, Elan.
Elan's mother, she says, "neglected him, abused him, left him with two sitters who sexually abused him. I knew the best thing for him was not to be with her."
Wendy says her niece was also abused and neglected as a child, and so had no idea how to raise her son. When Elan was a baby, she called him "disrespectful" for spitting up on her. When he was 3, she would "ground" him for misbehaving and lock him in his room for hours.
"She was forever expecting him to do things he couldn't do," says Wendy, who blames herself for not stepping in sooner. "There's very little excuse for what's happened to him." But she hesitated to interfere because "I was scared to death that if we did too much, she'd take Elan and just leave."
But when Wendy did offer to take Elan, his mother almost seemed relieved. She eventually met another man and moved to South Dakota, where she had another child.
Wendy, meanwhile, was left to deal with Elan's behavioral problems. In kindergarten, he would often hit other children or push them off the playground equipment.
"He was a very angry child," says Wendy. "He'd discovered the world is not reliable. It doesn't take care of him."
Wendy enrolled Elan in a battery of after-school programs to help him develop socially. But she missed so much work to care for Elan that she was eventually laid off. She started her own travel business out of her home, "but it's a commission job, so my income rises and falls."
The state offers relative caregivers only $215 a month per child in "kinship care." Foster parents, in contrast, get between $333 and $432 per month per child, with additional money available for kids with special needs. There's also a one-time clothing allowance and automatic eligibility for free school lunches.
Wendy doubts she'll ever have enough money to retire. "I don't see it in my future at all," she says frankly. "I don't see how it's going to happen."
She and Elan live with her friend, Carol Schulz, in Reedsburg. Carol, 61, is a foster mom to developmentally disabled adults. The mismatched family has been a source of curiosity among Elan's schoolmates. Once, while Carol was shoveling snow near the school bus stop, she heard Elan shout, "I just don't want to talk about it!"
A little boy had asked Elan where his parents were. When Carol explained that Elan lived with her and his aunt, and that everyone loved him very much, the little boy replied, "His mom left him here."
Wendy sighs. "The kids at school ask him about it all the time. If they do a unit on family, it comes up. 'Elan's family is not traditional.' He hears it all the time."
Although it costs $40 for a tank of gas, Wendy and Elan drive from Reedsburg to Madison several times a month for therapy sessions at Rainbow and to attend the support group meeting. Elan hangs out during the meeting with Alex and the other kids.
"That really did help him," observes Carol. "He was blown away by the fact that other kids there were living with their grandparents too."
Like most relative caregivers, Wendy's arrangement with Elan is an informal one. She has power of attorney, so she can enroll Elan in school, but not legal custody. Although she has cared for Elan for three years, she could lose him at any time.
Perhaps even this spring. Elan's mother has decided to return to Wisconsin. And she wants her son back.
"We don't want him separated from his mom," says Wendy, who would be glad to arrange visits. "We just don't want him living with her." She suspects Elan's mother might be more interested in the child support she would get from Elan's dad than in parenting her son.
Grandparents who get kinship care payments from the state don't usually get child support too, since that money goes to reimburse the state. To get custody or support payments often means going to court, which, besides being painful for families, can be prohibitively expensive.
"In order to go to court, they have to have the money," says Dunn. "There are a lot of informal placements because the grandparents don't have the money to do anything legal."
At last month's support group meeting, the speaker was a family law attorney who explained that if parents are out of the picture for more than six months, it's considered abandonment, and a court could terminate their parental rights. Elan's mother has been gone for nearly 15 months.
"If we can get termination of parental rights, we'll adopt Elan," says Wendy. "That will end all this baloney."
She is searching for a lawyer willing to take the case pro bono, since she can't afford to pay. And she's willing to adopt Elan, even if it means upsetting the family members who believe Elan should be with his mom.
Wendy's friend Carol, a former social worker, has counseled her on what to expect. "When it becomes clear we are opposing Elan's mother, it will be hard," says Carol. "Once we take that step, there will be a schism. But we feel strongly enough that we need to protect Elan."
Dunn says the state should do more to help relatives in Wendy's position. In the Wisconsin Legislature, Rep. Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) introduced a bill to give relative caregivers some of the same rights as foster parents. It would require state or county agencies to notify families in writing if they plan to remove a child from the home, and it allows relatives to request a review of the decision.
The bill passed an Assembly committee and was said to have bipartisan support. But efforts to bring it to a vote in the current legislative session have not succeeded.
Over the years, says Dunn, grandparents have actually lost rights: "Grandparents seeking visitation, for example, have to prove it would be detrimental to the kids if they didn't see them. In Wisconsin, you have to prove you have a bonding relationship with the child."
Parents, in contrast, are automatically assumed to have a relationship with the child that trumps everything else. "We're seeing more parents' rights and fewer grandparents' rights," says Dunn. "And grandparents are the ones stepping in to take care of the children."
At the very least, she says, the state should increase its $215 monthly kinship care payments. She believes the government may be unwilling to help grandparents because family members are expected to be there for each other.
"It goes back to that old adage of 'You have to take care of your own,'" she says. "You should be happy to spend a lot of money taking care of them."
But the problem in most cases is not willingness but ability. Many grandparents are financially ill prepared for the costs of child rearing; they are at the end of their earning careers, or on fixed incomes. Taking care of their children's children is not an expense for which they've planned.
What's best for the child?
Gary Ace is not Alex's blood relative. Mary's two sons were already grown when the couple married. But when she asked if Alex could live with them, he didn't hesitate to agree.
"I love her," he says. And after working as support staff in the state Public Defender's Office for 10 years, he knows what happens to kids who lack stable families. "I've seen a lot of kids who should have been taken away from their parents years ago. And now they're in the system. So I know we've got to protect Alex. It was just a matter of what was best for a child who did not pick his parents."
With all the stress and worry that comes with raising children, it can be easy to forget the joyful moments. So Mary keeps a "happy book," where she records funny or endearing memories of Alex. Like the time he left his peanut butter and jelly sandwich under the "sharing tree" at school, and told his teacher it was "for those who don't have any food."
Or when he asked Mary if they could go bike riding, and she promised they would, as soon as she lost some weight. The next morning, Alex poured her a huge bowl of Special K cereal and told her, "It says right on the box, Grandma, it can help you lose weight!"
They did eventually go bike riding. And horseback riding, snowmobiling, fishing. They took Alex ice skating, all the while fearing they might fall and break a hip. Gary has already had some health problems, including a minor heart attack. But the couple see it as their duty to provide these experiences to Alex.
"Otherwise, who's going to take him?" asks Mary.
The Aces pray their health will hold out until Alex is old enough to take care of himself. But they're also proud and delighted with how much he can do already. When Gary was in the hospital recovering from heart surgery, Alex took over his household chores, including feeding the dog. "He really stepped up to the plate," beams Mary.
And they've learned to enjoy their time with Alex, preferring to take him to a kids' movie than have a night out for themselves.
"He brings out the kid in us," says Mary. "He keeps us young."
Resources in our midst
Grandparents or other relative caregivers looking for support can attend meetings held the second Saturday and fourth Friday of every month, from 10 a.m. until noon, at the Rainbow Project, 831 East Washington Ave. The Saturday meeting features free childcare and speakers on topics from legal rights to substance abuse. For more information, call 255-7356 or visit www.rainbowproject.bizland.com.
Other groups providing assistance include:
County Area Agency on Aging
Publishes a resource guide and a monthly newsletter on grandparents raising grandchildren, and helps run the support group at Rainbow. Call Rose Roh at 220-3010 or visit www.co.dane.wi.us/aging.
United for Children's Rights
Can answer legal questions about grandparents' rights and helps run the monthly support group at Rainbow. Call 238-8751.
AARP Grandparent Information Center
Can provide referrals to other resources and publishes a regular newsletter on the topic in both English and Spanish. It is not necessary to be a member of AARP to get help. Call 888-687-2277 or visit www.aarp.org.