Grandfamilies: When parenting skips a generation

When Sonia Booker was raising five grandchildren on Lawrence Avenue in Boston, the crackle of inner-city gunfire meant one thing: duck and cover. "We lived on the first floor," she recalls, "and I had to teach them that when they heard any noise outside, drop to the floor."

Those frightening times are over for Ms. Booker. She and one of her grandchildren, 12-year-old Chantee, moved into GrandFamilies House, in October.

The Bookers now live in the first public housing in the United States specifically designed for the needs of low-income grandparents who are raising grandchildren. If successful, this social experiment could become a national model.

Booker describes the sparkling, renovated apartment building with 26 units in a quieter part of town as "a safe haven, and I get a wonderful night's sleep now." Her other grandchildren have returned to live with their mother, who has "gotten her life together again," says Booker.

GrandFamilies is an innovative, public-private project created to accommodate the housing and social needs of both seniors and youths of all ages. The bathrooms, for example, are outfitted with grab bars and the electrical outlets have safety covers.

The project is also an acknowledgment of the changing social dynamic of American families today; more and more grandparents find themselves raising grandchildren.

"What we have is an unfortunate situation where many children are losing their parents," says Janet Van Zandt, executive director of Boston Aging Concerns-Young & Old United (BAC-YOU), a nonprofit group. "We have to take care of the people who are taking care of the kids, or we'll lose the next generation."

Round 2, by the numbers

According to the US Census Bureau the number of grandchildren under 18 living with grandparents has nearly doubled to 3.9 million between 1970 and 1995. Numbers in the US are highest for white grandparents, but there is a higher proportion of African-American grandparents caring for their grandchildren.

In many struggling families, grandparents today become the only "safety net" available when their children cannot care for their offspring. Because of substance abuse, incarceration, abandonment, neglect, AIDS, or sheer immaturity, these parents are labeled as the "missing generation" when it comes to caring for their children.

Drug abuse among the parents is the No. 1 cause for children moving in with grandparents, says Mary Brintnall-Peterson, family specialist at the University of Wisconsin Extension in Madison. "And it happens to all ethnic groups and economic levels," she says.

Aside from assuming the normal challenges of parenting, many low-income seniors face discrimination and added financial hardship when a youngster moves in.

"We discovered that there were people in elderly housing who got kicked out when they had to take their grandchildren in," says Ann Gelbspan, project manager at the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development in Boston. Or, because of high local rents and fixed-incomes, "they were stuck in a one-bedroom apartment with several grandchildren."

In addition, many schools and health centers still fail to recognize grandparents as heads of families. Elderly meals programs can exclude children, and social service agencies often give less financial support to older recipients. In the face of these challenges, the BAC-YOU surveyed 50 grandparent-headed Boston households several years ago to find out how to best help. It found that high on their list of needs was better housing with on-site support.

Founding partners

So BAC-YOU partnered with the Women's Institute in a GrandFamilies Task Force. After several years of discussions with lenders, and city and state agencies, funding was arranged from various sources including the National Equity Fund Inc, an affiliate of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the nation's leading nonprofit community development fund provider.

More than $4 million was raised to renovate a former nursing home into GrandFamilies "by offering lenders low-income housing tax credits." And in another first, grandparents were approved by the state to receive housing subsidy certificates (amounts vary depending on the size of the family and the apartment) to help raise their grandchildren.

Unlike foster parents, in most states, grandparents caring for their children don't qualify for any special tax breaks or government subsidies.

"We convinced the lenders that the operating budget had to include a staff person and an apartment manager," says Ms. Gelbspan. Both are considered essential for launching the new concept and for emergencies.

All the residents except for two are either getting government subsidies or collecting Social Security. "Most of the residents are in the income range of $5,000 to $15,000 a year," says Ms. Van Zandt, "and this comes from three or four sources providing very small payments."

Little research has been done on the social dynamics of children moving in with grandparents. Initial studies show that many grandparents may be unprepared for the challenge.

The traditional notion of grandparents is one of loving competence. But a recent report by the nonprofit Children's Research Institute of California (CRIC) concluded that "many kinship placements occur without a thorough assessment of the caregivers ability or desire to provide a safe and nurturing environment."

A 1997 study from the School of Public Health at University of California at Berkeley concluded that many grandparents as a result are also at an "information" disadvantage when grandkids arrive. Nearly 62 percent of the grandparents in the study said they had no knowledge of any additional financial resources that could be available to them, and 41 percent were unaware of the growing support services from social agencies.

For Vera Sanders, a grandmother with 23 grandchildren living at GrandFamilies with her 15-year old grandson, John, the sense of community and caring she has felt since moving to GrandFamilies in October has been very satisfying, "People stop by and knock on my door," she says. "They ask me if I need anything. We all looking out for each other." Seated in the living room of their apartment, John says, "I like it here, and I'm thinking of doing some tutoring in math for the younger kids."

Playground views

The GrandFamlies two-story apartment building has an elevator with grab bars, wider doors, and a playground situated within view of grandparents looking out bay windows.

In the 4,000-square foot basement of the building, the Boston YWCA plans to offer an array of programs and services for grandparents and children. A pre-school is under way, and a school-age after school program will be launched later this year. Fitness classes for adults are being held, and Microsoft will provide equipment and volunteers for a computer lab. In addition, a recent series of workshops on "The ABC's of Disciplined Grandparenting" and legal issues were offered to the adults in the building.

GrandFamlies also has use of a van funded by Mellon Trust for trips and errands.

"We've only been open for two months, " says Cynthia Santos, the Resident Service Coordinator, who says there are a total of 34 children in the apartments now. "We're still getting to know each other," she says, "but my goal is to be a community here, just like an old neighborhood where everybody knows each other."

GrandFamilies has attracted a lot of media attention, plus visits and inquiries from social organizations from New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Camden, N.J., and the state of Minnesota. "GrandFamilies is definitely a model for other communities to emulate," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino when the project was opened.

"One measure of our success will be how well the kids are doing," says Van Zandt looking toward two or three years from now. "If they are adjusting well, and doing well in school, I think the idea will be successful. And of course we want the grandparents to be in good health and doing well too."

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