WHEN her daughter was sent to prison five years ago, Nancy Baker had to decide whether to raise three preschool-age grandchildren herself or give them up to foster care. Mrs. Baker chose to quit her job and care for the children.
``You sacrifice,'' she says, adding that her priority became trying to provide enough food. Even with the $590 a month the family receives from Aid to Families with Dependent Children, making ends meet has been difficult. Baker's husband, who was retired, went back to work part time to help with the added food and clothing bills.
More than 3 million children live with grandparents or relatives other than their parents - an increase of 40 percent over the last decade, according to the American Association of Retired Persons. In about one-third of these cases, a grandparent is the primary caregiver.
Teenage pregnancy, illness, divorce, and incarceration are increasingly forcing grandparents to become parents again - and often they are unprepared financially, says Kevin Mafera of IDS Financial Services Inc. in Marshfield, Mass.
Many grandparents are retired and live on fixed incomes. They have difficulty adjusting to drastic changes in their lifestyle, Mr. Mafera says. The financial realities of caring for a child are often overshadowed by other factors, Mafera adds. ``People by and large make the decision with their hearts. Unfortunately, it's not always the best for the child.''
``Financially, they are already strapped'' in many cases, says Ruth Blockman, director of Boston-based ABCD Foster Grandparent Program, which sponsors support groups for grandparents. Suddenly there is the cost of caring for a child ``from health to food and clothing,'' she says, noting that affordable housing can be difficult to find.
Baker and her husband were forced to move after taking in their grandchildren: Their landlord had not treated the apartment for lead paint and did not want children as tenants.
Grandparents need to have a clear idea of the financial impact of caring for a child, Mafera says. ``Pick out a number of what you think it's going to cost - then double it,'' he says. For short-term care, grandparents should estimate $5,000 to $8,000 a year per child in additional costs. If care includes college, costs could easily run $12,000 to $15,000 a year per child. Permanent caregivers may also need to change their wills or set up a trust fund for the grandchild.
Aid to Incarcerated Mothers' Grandparent Caregiver Support program in Boston helps caregivers by donating clothing, providing counseling, and helping grandparents with paperwork and ``understanding the legalities,'' says director Jean Fox.
A number of organizations, set up to help grandparents sort out legal, emotional, and financial issues have sprung up over the last several years. More than 250 organizations nationwide cater to grandparents, including a new Grandparent Information Center in Washington.
Often, grandparents do not benefit from the same financial assistance that adoptive parents would, says Marianne Takas, project director at the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law in Washington. Federal law was not designed to deal with situations where grandparents care for a grandchild without adopting, she says.
By adopting, and thereby becoming eligible for legal, medical, and adoption subsidies in some cases, birth parents' rights are terminated. But grandparents are often reluctant to risk offending their own children by adopting and instead assume guardianship of the grandchildren - without the financial assistance afforded to adoptive parents.
Baker expects that eventually her daughter will be able to care for her children. Until then, she says, ``We make do with what we have.''