Grandparents as Parents

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The following is an opinion piece from State Senator Katherine Clark:

Many of us rely on our extended families to help care for our children.  In our household, my children are blessed with the active involvement of both sets of grandparents in their daily lives – picking them up from school, sharing meals, helping with homework, and providing support and encouragement. 

My parents and my in-laws share a truly special relationship with my kids, and they are a vitally important piece of our family unit.  But for many families in our communities, grandparents are doing even more: they are raising their grandchildren.  They are responsible for feeding, housing, and educating their grandchildren and for keeping them healthy and safe.  In other words, they are parents to a second generation.

National statistics show that about 2.5 million grandparents are responsible for raising their grandchildren, and many more are involved in helping to care for them in some way.  In Massachusetts, that number is estimated at over 30,000 grandparents.  The reasons for this growing trend are complex, and each individual case is as different as the families involved.

When they do take on this responsibility, grandparents often face a barrage of legal, financial, healthcare, and education-related decisions.  At the same time, they must navigate many systems, including the probate courts, state and federal social services and assistance programs, the healthcare system, and the public schools.  They must examine everything from custody requirements to mental health needs to child care arrangements.

The financial strain on these families is often enormous. According to Grandparents.com, the average age of grandparents is only 48 nationwide and 60% are working full or part time.  It is a financial hardship for many grandparents, who often have their own teenage children still at home, to adjust their work lives and home lives to care for grandchildren.

The emotional toll can be even higher.  The children involved may be experiencing trauma and severe emotional distress, and the grandparents must deal with a major, and often very sudden, change in their life circumstances and future plans.  At the same time, grandparents may be coping with powerful emotions for their adult child who is unable to care for their children due to physical or mental illness, addiction, violence or incarceration.

I have had the opportunity to meet with individuals in our district to learn about the challenges they are facing as they lovingly take on the responsibility for raising their grandchildren.  My staff and I have heard about their concerns and their suggestions for improvements to our current systems of support.   

We are now looking at whether or not there are legislative changes needed to support these families.  In particular, we are examining state assistance for children and grandparents and how such services are affected by various custody arrangements.  In addition, we are looking into how to remove barriers to allow grandparents to adopt grandchildren without any loss of benefits.

The Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, which was established by law in 2008, has launched a web site that consolidates information for grandfamilies at: www.massgrg.com.   One of the best resources for grandfamilies are other grandparents raising grandchildren, and you can find a support group in our area by calling the North Suburban Child and Family Resource Network at (781) 279-0300.

As we move forward, I know we can work together to find common sense solutions that support all types of families in our communities.


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