Caring for `Orphans of the Living'

Support group helps impoverished grandmothers rescue neglected children of drug addicts. SOCIAL WELFARE

AFRAID she wouldn't hear if her delicate grandson stopped breathing in his struggle with drug-withdrawal symptoms, Rose Queen slept with her newborn grandson on her chest for the first four months of his life. Frances Thorn tells of the horror she felt when she came home from work to find her four-year-old grandson caring for his infant sister because her crack-addicted daughter, the mother of the children, was gone. The toddler had plugged in the iron, turned on the gas stove, and had helped himself to what was in the refrigerator. On her $700-a-month salary, she cannot afford to pay for day care for the children.

Lillian Branham is, at 62, the mother of 10, grandmother of 42, and great-grandmother of 12. She now finds herself the mother of a baby once again, caring for her son's 14-month-old child, who was abandoned by its crack-addicted mother.

With such a huge family to help her, she's not reluctant to care for the child and is even fighting for legal custody of the baby. But she adds that ``she's in pain'' to hear that the child's mother gave birth to another baby recently and was reported to be trying to sell it on the street.

Mary Williams shed tears of mixed emotion last month when her drug-addicted daughter returned home for help.

She was elated to be able to help get her daughter into a drug-treatment program. At the same time, she was disturbed that her nine-year-old granddaughter couldn't even recognize her emaciated mother and that by allowing her daughter to stay a night in her apartment she was risking eviction. (She is not allowed to have another adult stay in her subsidized apartment.)

All these women are members of a newly formed grandmothers' support group at the Community of Hope social-service center here.

They represent a growing number of grandmothers - mostly from poor inner-city backgrounds - who are being forced to bear more than the heartache of the addition of their daughters or daughters-in-law.

By taking in the new ``orphans of the living,'' as crack addicts' children are known, these women are becoming parents anew, with a whole set of problems most parents don't have.

Because they usually do not have legal custody of their grandchildren, these grandmothers are often invisible to the social-service system they so desperately need after rescuing their daughters' neglected and sometimes abused children, explains Lois Smith, director of health services at the Community of Hope, an organization affiliated with the Church of the Nazarene.

Children of crack addicts are often abandoned at birth in hospitals and account for the unprecedented increases of children in state care, says Doug Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. But an untold number of them simply slip quietly into the extended families of the addicts, usually to be cared for by grandmothers who themselves are struggling with poverty.

Because these women don't have legal custody of their grandchildren they often don't qualify for the public assistance - Aid to Families with Dependent Children, Medicaid, subsidized child care - that their daughters would receive as parents, says Ms. Smith.

To gain custody of the grandchildren may mean pitting mother against daughter in a way that can symbolize giving up hope that the addict will ever go straight. Often the grandmothers don't pursue custody because they are wary of the complex legal system or afraid the courts would take the children away from them, Smith says.

And the social-welfare system doesn't even provide for the grandmothers as well as it would for total strangers who would be granted foster-care status, explains Smith, who helped found the support group with Dr. Joseph Sherman, a pediatrician who volunteers at the Community of Hope. ``A foster parent will get $380 [a month] and instant Medicaid and the grandparent would only get $197 a month [for themselves] from public welfare,'' she says.

An overarching problem discussed by these women is that they often don't have the energy or know-how to blaze trails through the social-welfare system that has yet to fully recognize their plight.

The Community of Hope grandmothers' support group is aimed at helping the women become aware of what resources are available and to support them in trying to make use of them.

The group's weekly meetings are intense sessions of moral support and shared ideas for women whose good humor and outspoken character belie their difficult circumstances.

A recent gathering of the group's 10 members was largely consumed with the elation over the milestone of Ms. Thorn and Ms. Williams both placing their daughters in drug-treatment programs. There is tremendous difficulty in getting an addict to accept treatment at the same time space is available. The group had been counseled on the importance of pursuing treatment - and the success of two grandmothers in one week was almost impossible for the members to believe.

The group also shared horror stories about the detoxification unit at the public D.C. General Hospital. Many of them have gone to the hospital with their daughters, only to encounter waits of up to six hours just to be questioned for admission.

Only one of the women, Rose Queen, has successfully won legal custody of her grandchild. But others are beginning to try.

``Unless you get custody you can't do nothing,'' declares Mrs. Branham, who has been to court several times to request custody of her grandson. On each occasion the child's mother has not shown up to dispute the claim, or has arrived at court unable to speak coherently. Each time the judge said he needed to give the mother another chance to claim the child, but he has now said Mrs. Branham will be awarded custody in early 1991.

The group has decided on its own that certain members should be accompanied by another group member for support when they ``go downtown'' to apply for public services.

The grandmothers have found that the principal barrier to obtaining public assistance for themselves as guardians of their grandchildren isn't that they aren't entitled to it. Often individual caseworkers may not be sensitive to the fact that addicts pursuing drug street life are not interested in signing forms or may not be available for the hours of interviews necessary to qualify their children for assistance, and that grandmothers may be the child's only hope for getting help, say some of these grandmothers.

The group hopes to lobby city officials for respite care - day care for children that will allow grandmothers the time they need to pursue work or even public assistance.

``I get $700 a month,'' says Ms. Thorn. ``I pay $300 a month for rent and more for utilities. The rest I use to buy Pampers and food. But I can't get assistance till I get custody, and I can't quit work to keep the babies, so what am I going to do?''

It's the kind of dilemma that the support-group members are bound and determined to help her sort through.

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