Gwen Thomas sits in the family room of her home, holding a picture of three young boys.
She can’t help but smile.
She is a proud grandmother.
But for Gwen, 48, and her husband, Clifford, 49, the situation is unlike that of most grandparents, because they are raising those three boys as if they were their own children.
The Thomases – who live on Ash Street in the Hornerstown section of Johnstown – have three grown children. They were looking forward to spending some quality time together, but that was not in the cards.
Instead, they have custody of three grandsons – 11-year-old Sheldon and 10-year-old Wuanyai, who are brothers, and Clifford Jr., also 11 – who keep them busy and running back and forth to sporting events or countless activities.
“Yes, our lives have changed since receiving custody of the boys, but we are helping our daughters out until they can have their kids back,” Thomas said.
“They wouldn’t have anyone if we didn’t take them, and who knows where they would be.”
Sheldon and Wuanyai’s mother is in a rehabilitation program in Harrisburg. Clifford Jr.’s mother is living at the Thomases’ home, but she, too, has been in and out of rehab.
Thomas said she sees this experience as a second chance, an opportunity to reverse mistakes she may have made with her own children.
“It’s like I get to start over and do better with these kids,” she said.
Clifford and Gwen Thomas’ resolve to again parent a family despite their senior years personifies one of America’s fastest-growing and yet least-recognized demographic booms: Grandparents raising grandchildren.
An estimated 4.5 million children live in grandparent-headed homes in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s 30 percent higher than a decade ago and translates into 6 percent of the nation’s kids. In the majority of cases, the Census data show, the biological parents are dead or out of the picture.
Social experts call the increase and its ramifications a disturbing trend. They trace it to eight major cultural factors:
n Alcohol and drug abuse.
n Neglect, abuse and desertion.
n Increased poverty.
n Effects of AIDS.
n More mothers in prison.
n More single mothers.
n Undetected and untreated mental illness.
n High divorce rates.
Susan Kelley is one of those experts. She’s the dean of the College of Health and Human Services at Georgia State University in Atlanta, and the founder/director of the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.
“It’s incredible, the number of mothers – especially single mothers – incapacitated by substance abuse, incarceration and mental-health issues,” Kelley said.
“They’re a hidden population.”
The consequence, she said, is greater reliance on grandparents to raise their children’s children, either voluntarily or through order of the courts. And frequently with little warning or preparation.
Kelley said social history holds that rearing children with blood relatives whenever possible is preferable to putting them up for random adoption or into the foster-care system.
Yet this traditional preference, she added, places a not-so-hidden burden on grandparents who are not physically, financially or emotionally ready for the challenges of parenting in the age of the Internet, iPods and instant messaging.
Understanding how grandchildren view and respond to the world around them and how that differs from the time when the grandparents raised their first family requires a support system that often is not there for them, Kelley said.
This can lead to social isolation characterized by frustration, resentment and anger, she said.
Dorothy Carrillo, associate director for operations at Georgia State’s School of Social Work, said the changes go beyond grandma adjusting to high-tech gadgets and a high-speed lifestyle. She said common necessities also can overwhelm.
“One day your grandchildren don’t live with you, and the next they do,” Carrillo said. “We’ve had situations where there weren’t enough beds in the house or no crib, no diapers, no car seat.”
Add to the equation that many grandparents rely on little more than Social Security income and meager savings to get by, and the problem grows much larger, Carrillo said.
The Family Center
A grandparents-as-parents support group is available in Johnstown. The Family Center, along Park Avenue in Moxham, holds meetings on the second Thursday of every month.
Leader Roselyn Brandon said the support group was formed in 2000, when the center was at its former site along Messenger Street in Johnstown.
“Since we were close to the (East Side Elementary) school, we started seeing grandparents who were raising their grandchildren coming in and expressing concerns,” Brandon said, “so we decided to start something to help them through the process.”
Initially, about 20 people attended the meetings. The number is down to about a dozen regulars.
“We are always looking to add more,” Brandon said.
Although Brandon runs the meetings, she said the sessions are informal and she encourages the grandparents to take the lead or discuss any issues on their minds.
“Everyone gives input,” she said. “It is very positive, and everyone helps each other.”
According to Brandon, a main theme is the cost of raising grandchildren and not having the children go into foster care.
“No one wants to do that,” she said. “Most want to get support from their kids to help support their grandchildren. So they want to see the children’s parents get involved and share in the responsibilities.”
Looking for support
The American Association of Retired Persons estimates that about 20 percent of grandparent-headed households in the United States fall below the federal poverty guideline of $20,000 per year for a family of four.
U.S. Census Bureau figures show the percentage of impoverished families varies widely from state to state.
The three most populous states – California, Texas and New York – all exceed the national average. They also account for nearly one of every five grandparents raising grandchildren, the Census figures show.
“While intergenerational families cross all ethnic and socio-economic lines, the growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren is far more likely to be a person of color and to live in poverty than those who are not,” Kelley said.
Studies by the National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren show that the average age of the grandparents raising their children’s children is 57, but that about 25 percent of them are older than 65.
This presents what Kelley described as “unique disadvantages” for seniors who had dreamed of taking it easy after a lifetime of work and worry.
“Some must begin new jobs after retirement in order to bear the increased burden of raising a second generation of children,” she said. “Others must leave their jobs to provide child care.
“If they are in public housing for the elderly, they may be evicted because the children are restricted from residing in senior homes.”
In some states and communities, Kelley said, they may find their senior benefits reduced or eliminated “simply because they have undertaken to raise their grandchildren.”
While lack of money often is a huge hindrance, it is not the only significant one facing grandparents. Many of the grandchildren they are asked to raise suffer from behavioral and physical problems due to prenatal drug or alcohol exposure, sexual and physical abuse, feelings of abandonment and other mental health issues.
Experts in the field say there is little support for grandparents trying to cope with the extraordinary stress and anxiety associated with these emotional problems. The result, they say, is another generation at risk.
Judy Perdue of Project Healthy Grandparents, a community outreach program in Atlanta, said grandparents are asked to navigate the courts, social agencies and medical bureaucracies with little sympathy from those in charge of these institutions.
“They think ‘that’s their family,’ ” Perdue said. “They’re not willing to look at the intergenerational issue” and the reality that the grandparents need and deserve special attention.
“It’s really important people recognize the contribution grandparents make to our grandchildren,” Perdue said.
“They are the unsung heroes of our culture.”
Discipline and faith
Gwen Thomas said she and her husband are not pushovers.
“We are strict with discipline, and it is no-nonsense,” Thomas said. “We let them know it is a privilege to have games and toys and if you mess up, those things go.”
Thomas said the boys are good kids and honor roll students in the Greater Johnstown School District.
“They do well in school and we stress to them about getting a good education and staying in school,” she said.
The Thomas’ also emphasize the importance of religion.
“The boys love to go to church and they read the Bible,” Thomas said. “My husband is a minister, so we travel a lot where he will be preaching.”
The boys are active in a number of monitoring programs held at New Day Inc. and the Salvation Army, and they attend activities up to four times a week.
The boys understand that they are being raised by their grandparents, Thomas said, but she doesn’t delve too deeply into the problems their mothers are experiencing.
Just like most of the grandparents who attend the Family Center support group, the Thomases would like to see their daughters get involved with their own children.
“They are trying, and I have hopes that they will get it together and be able to have their boys back,” Thomas said.
Until that day comes, Thomas said, she embraces the role of parent/grandparent.
“I love this and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she said.
“We put our faith in God and we will do what He wants of us.”
Kelly Urban is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Kelly Kazek is a CNHI News Service Elite Reporting Fellowship recipient. She writes for The News Courier in Athens, Ala.
Gwen Thomas sits in the family room of her home, holding a picture of three young boys.
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