Second parenthood a grand challenge

Drug arrests are major reason more Clark County households are missing a generation

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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Resources for grandparents raising grandchildren

What: Parents Again support groups

When: Noon on the first Friday of each month at the Human Services Council, 201 N.E. 73rd St.; 6 -7:30 p.m. on the second Tuesday of each month at Children’s Home Society, 309 W. 12th St.

What: Parenting the Second Time Around class

When: 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesdays from Nov. 8-Dec. 13. Deadline to register is Nov. 3.

Information: 360-695-1325

A note on the statistics

The census stopped counting the actual number of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren in 2000. The question of whether a grandparent is raising a grandchild now is addressed in the American Community Survey, which replaced the census’ old long-form questionnaire in 2005. Answers from the American Community Survey are used to make estimates, whereas the census is an actual count. Hence, the statistics on “grandfamilies” since 2005 may not be as exact as they were in 2000. The Census Bureau uses the survey to make new estimates each year and then calculates three-year and five-year averages. The Columbian used three-year estimates for the purpose of this article in order to reduce the margin of error yet still have points of comparison over time.

When Marty and George Embleton’s eldest son was incarcerated six years ago after a drug conviction, the Vancouver couple immediately sought legal custody of their son’s 8-year-old twin boys, Nick and Alex.

A time of life that might have otherwise been spent in retirement and the freedom of an empty nest suddenly became a sequel to parenthood, Marty said.

“We are willing to give up our lives to see them progress and have a future,” Marty said. “Basically, you are giving up your life when you take on the responsibility of a grandchild.”

Grandparents raising grandchildren may conflict with the traditional societal order, but every year, so-called grandfamilies become more commonplace in Clark County and across the nation, according to census statistics.

“It seems to be a way of life for some families,” said Kelly Bray, spokesperson for Children’s Home Society of Washington. Bray said her own extended family includes a grandfamily.

Parental substance abuse is the main reason for grandfamilies, but the recession and Child Protective Services policies may be responsible for the recent growth, according to experts. Poverty, military deployments, death and mental illness also contribute to the trend.

“These families do face very unique issues,” said Jane Lanigan, associate professor of human development at Washington State University Vancouver. “Typically, the living situation is formed during a time of trauma, whether death, incarceration or substance abuse. It’s usually upsetting circumstances. Because of that there are a lot of feelings on the side of the grandchildren and the grandparents.”

On top of dealing with a traumatic event, grandparents raising grandchildren often have to balance failing health, limited retirement income, legal issues and guilt feelings over the disturbance of the natural family order.

In Clark County, growth in grandfamilies has outpaced that of other households with children.

Between 2005 and 2010, the estimated number of county households in which grandparents raised grandchildren grew by 13.2 percent, compared with a 2.9 percent increase in all households with children, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

In the 2008-2010 period, there were an estimated 2,877 grandfamilies in the county, about 4.9 percent of all households with children younger than 18.

That estimate suggests a climb of 55 percent since the 2000 Census when a total of 1,856 grandfamilies were counted in the county.

Causes and effects

Lanigan said drug use has been a primary cause of the formation of grandfamilies. However, Clark County drug arrests are down by 16 percent since 2000, from 1,369 arrests to 1,180 in 2010, according to the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

Hence, the recession and Child Protective Services policies may account for the increasing trend, Lanigan said.

For instance, if an adult child loses a job and needs to relocate or return for education and training, he or she may call on the grandparent to provide care, she said.

“Probably the greatest contributor to the rise in grandfamilies is the recent emphasis on placing children with relatives instead of in foster homes,” she said.

Vancouver grandmother Sandy McCargar, who has cared for her 10-year-old granddaughter for the past three years, likened the formation of a grandfamily to experiencing a divorce, both in terms of legal and emotional issues.

“You’ll hear, ‘You’re not my mom or dad,’ or ‘I wanna go live with my parents.’ And you say, ‘You know that’s not possible,’” McCargar said. “Even though inside the child felt safer, we still went through that transitional period. Now that we are older, we don’t take it as personally.”

McCargar took over the care of her granddaughter because her daughter was involved in drugs. The child’s father initially took custody but agreed to allow McCargar to take her after McCargar convinced him that she could offer a healthier and more stable environment, McCargar said.

Shelly Krebs, a family law attorney in downtown Vancouver, said grandparents often don’t take legal action until their grandchild has been in their home for some time.

The first thing they need to understand is the difference between guardianship and non-parental custody. Guardianship only gives the grandparent the power to make medical and financial decisions for the child.

“Guardianship doesn’t allow you to retain physical custody of the child against the parent’s wishes,” Krebs said. “If you want custody, you need to file a non-parental custody case.”

Providing a better home for the child is not enough legal reason to retain custody, she said. There has to be proof of actual harm.

However, there are stopgap measures that can be taken. A grandparents can file for temporary custody while a case is pending.

If the grandparent doesn’t have enough evidence for a custody case, he or she can file a kinship caregiver affidavit, Krebs said. The form allows a grandparent to enroll a child in school and seek medical care for the child for up to one year.

Emotional issues

Nick Embleton, 14, of Vancouver said he was overwhelmed with anger when he and his twin brother, Alex, at the age of 8 went to live with their grandparents. At the time, Nick and Alex’s father was addicted to drugs. He was jailed soon after the family moved in with Marty and George. Their mother had left the state.

With time, however, the boys recognized their grandparents’ decision to care for them had prevented them from having to live in a foster home, George Embleton said.

Nick said the time living with his grandparents has been life changing.

“I’ve gotten a lot more patient and kind since I’ve lived with them,” Nick said. “They love us a lot.”

Lanigan of WSU Vancouver said anger and guilt are common emotions during the formation of a grandfamily.

“The grandchildren may be happy but feeling guilty they’re not with their parents, or they might blame the grandparents,” Lanigan said. “The grandparent may be very happy or ambivalent they are able to care for their grandchild, but there’s also grief over what they’re giving up.”

For instance, grandparents may mourn the loss of leisure time.

The parenting role deprives the grandparent of a typical grandparent-grandchild relationship in which interaction is mostly for pleasure rather than instilling discipline, Lanigan said.

“Other grandchildren may feel shortchanged because their grandparents’ time is devoted to the grandchildren they’re parenting,” Lanigan said.

Vancouver grandmother Cecilia Lee said raising her 7-year-old grandson has transformed the dynamic of the relationship. Lee took in her grandson after his mother told Lee she was considering giving him up for adoption. His mother, who is Lee’s daughter, was living in extreme poverty, and he had a form of autism, which requires more attention than an ordinary child.

“In a normal grandparent-grandchild relationship, you can spoil him and then, send him back,” Lee said. “In our house, we have rules, and he knows the rules. I’m the disciplinarian. I take care of all the business we need to take care of.”

How to cope

Experts recommend that grandparents join a support group to cope with some of the emotional and other issues that come up.

Children’s Home Society, which provides a myriad of services for children and their families in Vancouver and across the state, is the main resource center to help grandparents and other kin cope with the challenges of raising relatives’ children. Through a mix of state and federal grants, the organization offers referrals for legal and financial help, information, classes, feedback and support groups.

McCargar joined the agency’s Parents Again support group after taking in her granddaughter three years ago.

“The support group has been a wonderful resource and godsend to grandparents who feel isolated and didn’t expect to be doing this in later life,” McCargar said.

Financial impacts

Raising a grandchild can dramatically change a household’s financial picture.

Relatives raising children may be eligible to receive a state Temporary Assistance for Needy Families grant of up to $305 per month per child.

McCargar receives the grant for her 10-year-old granddaughter. The Embletons also receive the grant.

“I use that money for a private tutor for her,” McCargar said. “The grant has really helped us in that respect.”

Some of the rules surrounding the grants are changing this week. Currently, the state counts only the child’s income to determine eligibility for a grant, said Carla Reyes, chief of policy in the Community Services Division at the Department of Social and Health Services. Due to state budget cuts, however, the eligibility requirements will become more stringent beginning Tuesday. In order to qualify for a grant for the child, the state will count the entire household’s income, Reyes said.

“It’s going to be really hard on some grandparents,” McCargar said. “I don’t think it’ll affect us because my husband lost his job at the end of August.”

George Embleton also has been out of work due to the recession.

Health issues

Another challenge for grandparents raising their grandchildren is reduced energy and health problems.

“We can’t do the things we used to do,” McCargar said. “I get bugged: ‘Let’s go for a bike ride, play tether ball or basketball.’ I do it, but I don’t do it as often or as long as when my kids were younger.”

“It’s a lot of work now that I’m older,” she said. “People ask me, ‘How do you do this?’ I say, ‘When it’s your grandchild, you step up and do what you have to do because the child would be suffering if you didn’t.”

Marty Embleton, 65, has gone through two bouts of cancer since she began raising twins Nick and Alex. She home-schooled the twins until this year when they began high school at Hudson’s Bay. She said she noticed despite less energy and more health problems, she’s more patient than she was as a parent to her children.

As the boys have gotten older, they’ve also been able to help their grandparents, she said.

Nick and Alex do most of the chores in the Embleton house on Saturday mornings. The routine has taught them discipline, and it also has relieved their grandparents of some of the physical labor they otherwise would have had to do themselves, their grandmother said.

Their father now lives at the family home. Nick said he’s close to his dad, but his dad serves more in the role of an uncle, while his grandparents provide all of the parenting.

“The children are so good,” Marty Embleton said. “They’re extremely obedient. They gave me no trouble at all. If they had, I couldn’t have done this. They know what it’s like not to have a meal (from the time when they lived with their father, and he was involved in drugs). They are very appreciative to be taken care of the way my husband and I do.”

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://www.twitter.com/Col_Trends; http://www.facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com