When my grandmother was trying to raise my sister and me, she faced many hardships. At times it seemed as if she and I were coming from two completely different worlds. We rarely agreed on anything and ended up in a lot of arguments. But then my grandmother had to go to a hospital, and then my sister and I had to move to a regular foster home. It was very clear to me that, whatever the conflicts and complications, it just feels much better to live with relatives than strangers.
In fact, a number of experts have solid evidence that kids who can’t live with their parents do better in homes with relatives. Studies show they have fewer behavioral problems and less chance of abuse. This is why New York State passed a law in 2004 saying that grandparents must be informed whenever a child is put in foster care, so that they might be able to step forward and look after the child themselves. The law also makes it easier for grandparents to gain legal custody of grandchildren they’re already raising.
Growing Trend, Unique Challenges
Living with a grandparent is becoming an increasingly common experience for kids both nationwide and here in New York City. There are more than 80,000 grandparents responsible for their grandchildren in New York City, according to the 2002 Citizens’ Committee for Children’s “Keeping Track of New York City’s Children.”
Although experts say that this influx of kids into their grandparents’ homes is preferable to traditional foster care, they also note that social services is still playing catch up. Elderly caregivers face a host of unique challenges that too often go unmet, as they did with my grandmother.
Grandparent caregivers are more likely to live in poverty than other grandparents, according to “Forging Connections: Challenges and Opportunities for Older Caregivers Raising Children” (published by New York Council on Adoptable Children, Inc.(COAC)). They also tend to be in poorer health and are less educated than non-relative foster parents.
While grandparents looking after their children through the foster care system have access to more services than do grandparents looking after kin informally, they all have a harder time accessing services and supports, like housing, transportation, and medical care than do traditional foster parents.
But New York City has become a pioneer in addressing the challenges of grandparent caregivers, by opening the nation’s first housing complex specifically for grandparent-headed families,
GrandparentFamily Apartments, a six-story apartment building on Prospect Avenue in the South Bronx opened a year ago, the nation’s first public development exclusively for grandparents raising grandchildren. The families living in the 51 apartments all get a social worker, support groups and parenting classes. Children receive tutoring and organized activities in the afternoon and evening. Apartments also have special amenities for the elderly—like cords you can tug on if you need help.
Annie Barnes, 62, one of its residents, has lived in the building since it opened. Like many grandparent caregivers, Barnes never expected to be a parent at her age. But 11 years ago she found herself raising her two grandchildren after her son was murdered. “When I turned 50 I wanted to do things for myself and travel places. I had to put my plan on hold to provide for my grandchildren,” she said.
Both Barnes’ grandchildren, Alonzo Poinsett and Shakela, had been born premature and with serious health problems. She needs a lot of help raising them, but living in the trail blazing apartment complex, she says she can swing it.
Dorothy Jenkins, 76, also lives in the GrandparentFamily Apartments. She got custody of her grandchildren when her daughter died. “There was no other alternative,” she said, meaning she refused to let them be put in foster care. So she retired to raise her grandchildren full-time. “I had to start all over again,” she said, adding that she’s a strict parent.
In her old home Jenkins used to worry about safety. Now she says she feels secure. “You know what I’m doing right now?” she said. “I’m in bed, watching TV, while my front door is open—and I’m not worried. It’s a great life for me.”
Although both women said, “These children need to stop running up and down the stairs!” they were more than satisfied with their new apartments.
Talking to them made me wish my own family had gotten that much support. But it also made me feel hopeful knowing that grandparent caregivers are being provided support in raising their grandkids. Maybe GrandParentFamily Apartments will inspire more of the same.
Pauline Gordon, a senior at Acorn Community High School, is a writer with Youth Communication, publishers of Represent. Additional reporting by Kendra Hurley Â