In the U.S., we have a unique family constellation on the rise known as "grandfamilies". A grandfamily is any household led by a grandparent or relative out of necessity instead of choice. Grandfamilies are a by-product of childhood neglect, abuse, the opioid epidemic, incarceration, untreated mental health issues, and parental disability or death. According to Generations United, we have approximately 7.8 million children living in homes headed by grandparents or other relatives. When a child can no longer be cared for by their biological parents, a family member steps up, and most often, it is a grandparent. In doing so, they become financially responsible for raising their grandchildren with little or no support from the child welfare system.
Before the pandemic, grandparents raising grandchildren were already in a precarious situation. They were struggling to meet the needs of children exposed to maltreatment and trauma while also supporting the family financially. But now, we fear, things have made a critical turn for the worse while those grandparents become unemployed, sick, or in the worst-case scenario, die due to Corona Virus.
Right before the pandemic took off in the U.S., I met with several grandparents raising grandchildren through advocacy work I am doing with a local non-profit called Grands Stepping Up in Pennsylvania. Being a former family therapist for kinship families, many of the grandparents I met came to me in tears as they described the challenges they face trying to raise their grandchildren. Many feared losing their homes, retirement savings, and their jobs trying to keep up with the many pressures of raising children who are grieving, exposed to trauma, and usually not receiving mental health care. Again, this was the state of their life BEFORE the pandemic. Now, life has become an even steeper uphill battle as children are re-traumatized by the pandemic, and grandparents attempt to manage the emotions and behaviors of children who are sliding down a slippery slope without a safety net.
Grandparents are an invisible population filling in for a generation of parents who are missing and unable to care for their children safely. Grandparents share with me that they are ashamed of this situation, so they do not like to talk about it or bring attention to themselves. They report that their grandchildren experience bullying at school for not having a mom or dad. These grandparents are fighting to maintain the basic needs of their family, and at the same time neglecting their requirements for self-care and pleasure. While raising young children, they are also coping with loss and trauma stemming from their biological child's drug abuse or mental health issues as they go back to managing the responsibility of childrearing in a completely different world than when they had children.
The organization dedicated to the mission of raising awareness for this marginalized population, grandfamilies.org, reports that 25% of grandparents have a disability, and approximately 30% are single grandmothers, while some are both.
Grandparents are the last hope for a generation of children left behind by the opioid epidemic and other societal problems like our broken justice system and the lack of access to mental health care. Grandparents are directly responsible for the care and well-being of more than 2.8 million children, who would otherwise become part of our already overloaded foster care system.
To put this into perspective, we have approximately 500,000 children living in our country, without a family to call their own, inside the foster care system. These children live in temporary foster placements, bounce from home to home, or end up in a group home - which is the final destination before "aging out" of the system. "Aging out" means a child has turned 18 and is no longer part of the system, but also does not have a family. Twenty percent of children who age out of the system will become instantly homeless, and the outcomes for their future are dire. This is why the physical and mental health of grandparents raising grandchildren is crucial.
The numbers tell us that without grandparents stepping up, our child welfare system would crumble under the pressure of finding homes for children without a family. If the system is unable to match children with foster families, the alternative is a generation of young adults who are homeless, addicted, incarcerated, or dead themselves.
I know we have a lot of stressors on our plate right now, but we have to focus on our most vulnerable, our silent grandfamilies. We can take action to provide ways to support these families while protecting their safety. Let's all come together during a time of need to support the grandparents who stepped up for the lives of the abandoned, abused, and vulnerable.
HOW WE CAN HELP GRANDFAMILIES
Donate to your local programs that provide resources to grandfamilies HERE. This link is a state by state list of organizations that offer support to grandfamilies. Email them or call to see how you can be of help. Once you click on your state, scroll down a few pages to find a list of programs and agencies that support grandfamilies in your home state.
If you know a grandfamily, reach out to them and offer to bring them food or supplies during the pandemic. If you are unable to do that for safety reasons, give them a call and check-in to see if they need someone to talk to. Showing you care can make all the difference. Don't feel pressure to offer advice; just listening can be the greatest gift of all.
While you are cleaning out your home, consider donating your used belongings to a grandparent group once the pandemic is over.
Offer to provide free childcare to someone you know who is raising their grandchild or other relatives.
Contact your local politicians and ask them to allocate funding to grandparents raising grandchildren.
Build awareness in your community by sharing this article with others on social media.
Many grandfamilies/kinship families utilize food banks to feed their families. Lack of food remains their most significant need. You can donate food to a local church or community food bank to help grandfamilies put a meal on the table.
If you are a grandfamily in need of help, you can also use the resources above to find support and advocate for yourself. HERE is a link to GrAND Voices Network. If you would like to be part of the movement to help grandfamilies on a national level, please reach out to grandfamilies.org.
While we are all scrambling to support our families during the pandemic, we can feel helpless and powerless to make positive changes in the world around us. One of the ways we can increase our sense of agency in our lives is to help someone else who is less fortunate. Please contact me if you would like to get involved. I wish you all the health and wellness possible as we navigate through this uncertain and anxiety-producing time.
Beth Tyson is a psychotherapist, trauma-responsive coach, author, speaker and advocate for families coping with trauma and loss. Her new children's book, A Grandfamily for Sullivan, is a tender-hearted story about an orphaned koala who goes to live with his grandma when his parents are unable to keep him safe. It addresses the raw emot