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Wednesday, September 3, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
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Bringing up baby, again: More grandparents are stepping in when parents check out
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Credit:Paul Hoppe

Single mom Sue Palm knew things were bad with her daughter, Tina, but at least she was getting help. Tina (whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, along with those of other children in this story) had long struggled with learning and behavioral issues, and eventually her father's death. Now, she was getting kicked out of a day treatment program for violent behavior after biting a staff member. When they ran tests for AIDS and other diseases per protocol, they called Palm with the discovery that would change her life forever: 14-year-old Tina was pregnant.

"I was brought up in a very close-knit family and just didn't have these issues, so I was like, what did I do?" says Palm. "You know, the whole, 'I must have done something.' The sort of self-blame."

After exploring their options, Palm and her daughter made the decision to keep and raise Tina's baby son, all three of them in Palm's Madison home. That was almost five years ago.

"It's just like starting all over again. I'll be 59 this February with a 4-year-old," says Palm. "I don't want to get all woe is me, because he makes me laugh every day. But this isn't what I had planned."

At the time, Palm was simply making a very personal decision for her family -- one that, although she stands by it, felt exhausting, embarrassing and unique. But she had no idea how just how common it actually is.

"When you look at the increase in our society and in our country of grandparents raising grandchildren, it's just amazing," says Molly Tomony.

Tomony, along with Ethel Dunn, co-facilitates the Relatives Raising the Relatives' Children Program at the Rainbow Project -- or, as it's known to members, Grandparents Group. It's a support group that gathers the second Saturday of every month in a spacious back room at Rainbow Project while younger grandkids are cared for nearby. The group started back in 2004 with under 10 members. This year it has already served 180 Madison-area grandparents, plus their grandchildren.

According to a September 2013 Pew Research report, in 2011, 7.7 million children in the U.S. -- one in 10 -- were living with a grandparent, and approximately 3 million of these children were also being cared for primarily by that grandparent. In Wisconsin, 78,351 children under age 18 live in such homes; that's 5.9% of the children in the state.

"I think initially there's the grief, or shifting direction, for those grandparents," says Tomony.

She brings in a different professional each month to address the group on challenges they've asked about, including guardianship, custody, adoption, legal questions, grief, stress, child development, drugs, finances and cultural issues arising from white grandparents raising black kids. But the first hour is always reserved for open discussion around the table, support-group style; it's a safe space with peers so each can know exactly what the others are going through. Many of the grandparents initially feel some stigma surrounding the unexpected position they're in, and group is a place they can find a sense of belonging.

"Our society can make judgments on why the grandparents are in the position they are, versus supporting their caring for these young ones so they're not in our system," says Tomony. "And recognizing that any one of us could be in that position."

Palm, who found the grandparents group early on from a newspaper ad, says she doesn't think she's missed a meeting in nearly four years.

"I beat myself up thinking I'm the only one out here with a kid like this. It was just very isolating. I had the tendency to sort of be ashamed and just not venture out," she says. "What saved me, really, was going to the grandparents group."

Filling in the blanks

Chris and Jill Carlsen, both in their 50s, have been married for more than 30 years. They've each been in recovery from addiction for about that long, too, so they were able to raise two children in a loving, supportive home, free from alcohol and drugs. It might sound naive, but they'd hoped their clean living would somehow spare their own kids from some powerful DNA in what experts agree is a hereditary disease. Unfortunately, it didn't.

By the time their youngest daughter, Amber, was a teenager, she was deep into her own drug and alcohol addiction. She had an on-and-off boyfriend from the age of 14, and the two were often running away. The Carlsens took him in, hoping to keep their daughter home and safe. At 19, she became pregnant with baby Jenny.

For the first several years of Jenny's life, she lived on and off with the Carlsens as Amber was in and out of their home, her own apartment, and treatment centers. As Amber and her boyfriend's addiction escalated and their legal problems mounted, the Carlsens found themselves caring more and more often for Jenny. They knew something had to give.

"We'd done every possible thing to try to help," says Chris of the emotional and financial drain.

"At that point we wondered, what are we gonna do?" says Jill. "We work full time. We don't have any financing for babysitting. We're not prepared for this. We had already forked out so much money, and we were in debt for it."

What the couple feared most was that Amber, who had already overdosed twice, would die. Then not only would they suffer that devastating loss, but they'd be left with no medical or custodial rights to properly care for Jenny.

"The Grandparents Group, and the support we found there, gave us options," says Chris. "They started filling in the blanks that we didn't know."

Protecting the grandchild

Carol Gapen has seen a lot of grandparents like Sue Palm and the Carlsens in her career, including eight years as a Dane County Child Protection social worker and 20 years as a children's law attorney, most recently at the Law Center for Children and Families.

"It doesn't happen overnight where they suddenly say, okay, I'm going to raise this child," says Gapen.

She notes that usually mom and baby move in temporarily because they need some help, or the grandparents start providing some childcare that steadily increases. Especially if drug and alcohol abuse are involved -- a very high percentage of the cases, says Gapen -- mom starts to show up less and less and grandparents start to take over more and more.

"That's where I would always come in," she says. "And always, especially when I spoke with the Grandparent Group, I said, 'Get things set up legally while you're still friends.'"

Most grandparents learn as they go, unaware of legal issues until they're suddenly faced with them. It might start with simple nuisances, such as not being allowed to sign a permission slip for a school field trip, or to accompany the child to a doctor's visit. But when more serious issues arise, as when a parent suddenly returns to take the child the grandparents have been raising for years, they may find themselves with no legal rights at all. This fear is always there for grandparents like the Carlsens.

"They could have come in and said, you know what? We're just gonna take her and you guys are out of the loop," says Chris. "And at points, they would threaten us with that."

Laws vary from state to state. In Wisconsin, Gapen says, there are four methods -- three statutory and one non-statutory -- for grandparents seeking visitation, depending on whether the biological parents are divorced or deceased, or whether grandparents or other relatives have already been acting as parents and have formed a "parent-like relationship" with the child. There is also guardianship, which allows grandparents to make key educational and medical decisions and even allows the child to live with them. But ultimately, guardianship falls short of legal custody.

"The problem with guardianship as a solution is that it doesn't establish greater rights than the parent," says Gapen. "So both parent and grandparents then have equal rights to the child, which means equal rights to have the child with them. It doesn't determine placement, and that's a big problem."

Gapen says going for full legal custody and placement of the child is the most drastic step, and an uphill battle. Courts are rightfully hesitant to separate children from their biological parents, even with compelling circumstances such as prolonged abandonment. Further complicating the issue are the grandparents' own loving feelings toward their kids, and their mixed emotions about taking on such a huge responsibility at that stage in life.

"But they get to the point where they say, 'I love my child, but my child is really screwing up, and my grandchild needs protection,'" says Gapen. "'So if I have to make a choice, I'll go with protecting my grandchild.'"

That's pretty much how it went for the Carlsens, although it wasn't easy and it sure wasn't quick. They sought out an attorney and, eventually, were granted joint custody with primary placement. That gave them the ability to set rules and have a say in medical, educational, transportation and other day-to-day decisions. It allowed them to put Jenny on their health insurance plan. And it allowed them to legally say no to their own daughter if her home didn't pass informal drug inspections, a prerogative they didn't have when they used to send Jenny back home, their stomachs in knots.

This arrangement qualified them for the state's Kinship Care program, which allowed them to get Jenny into childcare at the YMCA, relieving some of the pressure on the working grandparents. It's better, but it still isn't easy; that's where the support component of the Grandparents Group comes in.

"Sure, sometimes we kind of resent some of the stuff we have to do because we're not moving in the direction we thought we were going to at this time in our lives. But you just talk through it, and you get past it," says Chris. "You have a place where you can go vent that, without feeling guilty or judged."

New directions

It's a sunny Saturday morning at Rainbow Project on East Washington Avenue, and the Grandparents Group is just letting out. Kids come tumbling out of the childcare room, where UW students have volunteered their morning to hang out. They don't do any formal work with the kids, but that doesn't mean there's no benefit.

"What we are providing is a safe, supportive space for those kids to be together," says Tomony. "Many of the kids will casually speak of their comfort here. Comfort in just being able to be with the kids who they know are in a similar life situation."

Tomony has been working with the Grandparents Group since around 2010. Before that, she spent 13 years at Agrace Hospice Care. Initially she was brought in to address the group about grief, leading them through an exercise where they each broke and reassembled a clay flower pot.

"We talked about how even though things can feel shattered in pieces, it doesn't mean you can't create something beautiful from that," says Tomony. "But you can't always put the pieces back the way they were. Sometimes you have to create a totally new direction."

It's a common theme at Grandparents Group, which dates back to 2004. That's when Rainbow's executive director, Sharyl Kato, asked Ethel Dunn to take over the fledgling program. Dunn had just retired as the head of two national nonprofits related to grandparents' rights, and she brought a lot of practical and legal experience to the table. Kato recognized the need for clinical support when she saw the group benefiting emotionally from working with Tomony. So she asked Tomony to join Dunn as co-facilitator.

"I came to the group that one time and I was hooked," says Tomony.

Tomony and Dunn believe the Rainbow Project's Grandparent Group is one of only three active grandparent support groups in Wisconsin, and the only one that's privately funded. Funding can be a tricky business, particularly because most federal agencies that provide funding recognize grandparents as 55 and older. Many of the grandparents who come to the group, however, are younger than that.

"No longer do you have the soft, fuzzy gray-haired grandmother. You have the grandmother who's 39, 40 years old," says Dunn. "We have to be very careful that we don't utilize [some funding] for people under 55, and yet a lot of our members are under 55."

"There's a woman who wasn't here today who is in her early 50s," adds Tomony, "who's caring for her great-grandchild."

Rewarding and maddening

Helping people on the outside understand the realities facing grandparents raising grandchildren is an unexpected outgrowth of the program, according to Dunn and Tomony. As group members have become intimately familiar with one another's struggles, they've begun some community outreach on their own.

The Carlsens, for example, have taken it upon themselves to visit graduate classes at the UW and groups of Dane County social workers to share their experiences in hopes of helping others. They're torn between feeling protective of their daughter Amber, who's doing much better today, and advocating for other grandparents who, at times, are undervalued in a system that prioritizes keeping children with biological parents.

"We've basically told them that you need to quit treating us like the enemy," says Chris Carlsen. "We're the ones who stepped in. We're the ones trying to keep our grandchildren out of the system. So let's be a little more polite with each other here."

The grandparents group is far from a cure-all, of course. But for Palm, whose 4-year-old grandson introduces himself politely before darting off again to rejoin his friends, the guidance of Tomony and Dunn and the support of people like the Carlsens are often the only things keeping her sane.

Who else could understand the way this takes up "99.99%" of her heart and brain space? Who else could understand how it feels when every other parent at school and social events is half your age? Who else could understand how simultaneously rewarding and maddening the whole thing is?

"Then you get people like Chris and Jill, who have gone through it already," says Palm. "And even though everybody's circumstances are different, it's just so helpful."

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