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San Diego Grandparents Raising their Grandchildren

Aired 11/28/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

GUESTS

Pam Smith, Director of the agency on Aging and Independence, San Diego County

Liz Flores, grandparent who helped raise two grandchildren.

They have all the responsibilities of parents, but not always the authority. An estimated 20-thousand San Diego grandparents are raising their grandchildren. On Tuesday, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to develop a plan to help these grandparents navigate through the services they need to keep their grandkids safe and healthy.

For more information call 800-510-2020

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. They have all the responsibilities of parent, but not always the authority. I'm speaking about the estimated 20,000 San Diego grandparents who are raising their grand children. On today, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to develop a plan to help these grandparents navigate through the services they need to keep their grand kids safe and healthy. Joining me to talk about the new effort are my guests, Pam Smith is director of the agency on ageing and independence at San Diego County. Pam, welcome back to the show.

SMITH: Thank you, Maureen. Nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: And Liz Flores is a grandparent who has helped raise her grand children. Hi, thank you for coming in

FLORES: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Pam, you work with this issue on a daily basis. Have you seen an increase in the number of patients -- grandparents taking on the role of parents?

SMITH: Yes, we have seen an increase, and we can tell by census information that it truly has been increasing. Pretty dramatically over the last decade. And of course with the economic downturn starting in 2008, it took a sharper increase. The problems that affect families. And so it's a growing problem, and it's one that I think we really need to address. It's also a very complex problem. You know? When there's never a good reason for why grandparents are raising grand children. There's been a death, there's number drug addiction, there's incarceration, there's a lot bit of all of that. And so all of a sudden you've got people that were looking at getting out of their child bearing years or maybe have been out of them for quite some time stepping in very importantly to provide a home for these kids. You might have both the grandparents and the kids may be angry over what's happened. There's just so many complex issues, heel issues, behavioral issues, guardianship issues

CAVANAUGH:

CAVANAUGH: I was going to say, how does that work legally? If a child comes home and say, mom, I can't take care of my child anymore. Can you look after my son or daughter for a while? And then that goes on for a while for months maybe years. What legal standing does the grandparent have to actually assume authority over that child?

SMITH: Well, in this, you know, cases ares are all very different. Most cases I will tell you, though, it isn't as cheer cut as here, you take them, you have them. It's can they stay a little while? So you're just helping take care of them, and they're going to come back and get them. And they do sometimes. Especially when you're looking at families that have some drug addiction, and incarceration. It starts as informal and temporary. Then that adds to the complexities. You're getting settled into a routine teen, then mom or dad reappear. And there's still those problems that go on. Those are the very issues though, that we are going to be helping grandparents solved, offeringly legal workship shops, understanding if they should become the guardian or not, what are the ramifications of that. We do know it crosses all ethnic and cultural lines

CAVANAUGH: I was just about to ask you about that, because there was a statement issued by Greg Cox about this. And in that statement, he states that this is a situation that affects our whole community, cutting across economic and ethnic lines. So is that what you're seeing as well, Pam?

SMITH: Yes, it is. And we have a lot of data from the last census that's really telling us, and it was a higher number among African American and Hispanic families, but in the last three years, it has risen dramatically among the white population. And at a much higher rate. We do know that 2/3 of the grandparents raising grand kids are either living -- have financial issues, they're either living at the poverty level or perhaps just beef it. So that adds to the complexities and to the need to get the legal issues. Some of the cases are in the formal child welfare child protective system. But most are the no. And of course our goal would be to not have them in that. And how do we help stabilize? Because what happens often, some of these grandparents become so overwhelmed, the child does enter the child welfare system. So our goal is really to get in here and help these folks and stabilize. It does impact the whole community. It impacts schools, neighborhoods, many of these families end up, you know, with so many complex problems that they're headed down the same path again.

CAVANAUGH: Right. I want to bring Liz into the conversation. But first, I just want you, Pam, if you could, you see so many cases of this, so many people who are dealing with this situation. And I'm wondering if you can give me an overview of what it's like for a grandparent to suddenly find themselves in the position of raising their grand child, realizing that is this going to be the way it is until further notice.

SMITH: Well, I think the word that we hear the most is overwhelming. And you know, grandparents range from 35 to 85. And so you may have the younger grandparents that are still working, they may still have other kids in the home, you've taken on additional. But they're probably more in the routine of it. Am but as you get older, if all of a sudden you're -- looking toward retirement, you are retired, some of those issues, and now you've got this added responsibility, you may be living in senior housing that's just for older adults and all of a sudden you've got additional quids in the household, a 3-year-old, an 8-year-old, and a teenager. And now you've got housing issues that you've got to sort out. So it is really, really overwhelming, and a lot of these older adults are tired. They might have health issues of their own. The overwhelming issue is these grandparents have stepped up to try to care for these loved ones, and we need to support them in that effort

CAVANAUGH: Liz Flores is a grandparent who helped raise her grand children, more than one, right?

FLORES: Yes. More than one.

CAVANAUGH: How many?

FLORES: Two formally, one informally.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And you still have one of your grand children living with you; is that right?

FLORES: Yshe's 18 now.

CAVANAUGH: And how long has she been with you?

FLORES: She came when she was five, and the younger one was two and a half

CAVANAUGH: I see. What was it like for you when you realized that you were in the going to be the parent in a sense for these children? You were going to raise them. What kind of challenges did that present to you at first?

FLORES: Initially, I thought it was going to be short-term, three months, 6 months, a year. A year turned into 5, 5 to 10. Now it was 13. So it's just the challenges just initially, I was working full time, I still am, so how do you balance that? How do you find the appropriate place to be taking these girls in the mornings and then we just keep those kind of items. And then also the schools upon, how do I go to three different schools and then still be at work at 8:00? It's kind of -- those kind of things are the day to day challenges they was facing will

CAVANAUGH: And of course you've already been through that once before with your own children

FLORES: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, from year to year, did you know the next year that you were going to still be keeping those kids? Or was it just always we don't know? We don't know what's going to happen? The first 5 years was kinda we didn't know, and from that point on, it was just, like, they're going to stay here with me. It was a better environment for them to grow up and nurture.

CAVANAUGH: How was it different being the grand mom instead of the mom?

FLORES: Oh, it's very different. Grandmothers are supposed to be the loving, nurturing, or honey, come on, have some cookies. And when you are the sole person responsible for them, you have to be more of setting healthy boundaries, being responsible to take time out from work for the theres' appointments. The same thing with growing up with your on or about children, but it's just a different dynamic.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, Pam, the staff of your agency has basically been tasked by the Board of Supervisors to try to stream line the process so that grandparents can find their way to services and to the help that they need in education, and healthcare, and so forth of the how are you going to go about streamlining that process?

SMITH: Well, I actually think this is the really exciting part to get in the Aframe here of how to better help. There are 7ses out there, programs out there, we've been reaching some. We're going to really step back and make a big county-wide coordinated effort. We developed a tool kit that would be both online and paper that grand parents would have. What is available, what should they know, we're going to develop some workshops, symposiums where they could go and hear speakers. And then go to workshops on what are my legal options, how do I get counseling for my kids, what are educational issues, how to I get house something what programs can help us financially, even, for them of them. So we have put together and we're bringing in a lot of community patterns, reaching across the county services lines. Because we have housing, child support enforce. All of health and human services, and saying we've got to do a better job, coordinate all of these services. And our partners will be out there, and working with schools. Schools know when somebody is signing in. And how can we -- again, many of these kits have school issues because they have been through some traumatized situation. How can we get these resources there? Another best practice we find nationally we really want to bring in are grandparents' support groups. Very neighborhood based, community based, where we'll able to get the information but let the grandparents come together on a regular basis, share what they're going through, it's a big, big help for them. So we want to -- we're looking at this as a broad community effort, organizing what's out there. Will we're going to be working closely with 211. So in the end, on sustainability, grandparents if they hear about it, they'll have one place to go and get the access. So we're looking at really getting some stuff to jump-start but really having an on-going, sustainable system to better support grandparents

CAVANAUGH: Because these things have been occurring to me as you've been talking, lots of services for kids are online now from healthcare to homework. And not to say -- you make the point that grandparents are anywhere from 35 to 85, but if you go upper, the senior grandparents, so to speak, do some grandparents need help with the online services? Because it wasn't necessarily that way when they were bringing up their own kids

SMITH: That's an excellent point. I think that's changed in the last ten years. You have grandparents now that kids have cellphones and access to the Internet, and what should I be limiting there? What are these healthy boundaries? And so those are the kind of things we want to get in and help them with. Even the health issues, you mentioned, healthcare, we may have a 75-year-old grandparent who has a chronic disease, diabetes or a problem, and now with a 5-year-old grandson who has asthma, we really want to get in with these families and help them be healthier. How do you manage the chronic disease? How can we make sure that they get access to healthcare and dental care? And across their life span. So those services are out there, but they're complex, they're coordinated, and those new parenting things am so again, parents' support groups. A grandparent comes in, and says, here's a new one. What do I do? My granddaughter wants a tattoo, you know? And how do you deal with that? Grand parents that have been through this are a great help, especially if we as the community can come in and say here's some resources, some help. And we want to be there. And we really want to help educate the population. So they can make informed choices. And reach for those things that will best support them.

CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, Liz, what was the emotional component of this experience for you? How have your grand children adapted to this living situation without their parents around?

FLORES: Well, in the initial -- initially it was very traumatic for them. They did a lot of crying, there was small behavioral shifts with the younger one. But just a clinginess, a kind of -- fearful that I would leave. And so they kind of had those Abandonment issues, but over time, it got better. Now they have relationships with both parents, and it's just keep moving forward. But it's been a challenging walk to say the least.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of emotional help did you either seek or really could have used during this process?

FLORES: Well, I did seek some personal counseling for myself. We also went to the kinship program and did as Pam had mentioned where other grand parents shared their stories, and it's just kind of -- well, I did this, and this worked. And also the feeling that you're not alone. Because sometimes you feel so isolated, like what happened here to cause this situation? And when you meet with other grandparents, there's that support, that emotional support, and best practices, if you may wish to call that, and it just helps you to stay focused on the children. Because ultimately, that's what the goal of at least for me, and most grandparents, I would assume, is that the children come first. So how do I meet their needs? And kind of just focus on them

CAVANAUGH: You can look back now and you can see these 13 plus years, right? That you've been raising your grand inter~ kids. And I'm wondering, if you had a choice, would you have done that?

FLORES: Oh, yes. Yes. They're mine. They're my grand children. But they're my children as well. So they have two moms. And so I just could not bear personally the idea of someone else raising them because of the situations that occurred. And they have made my life compete

CAVANAUGH: Liz, I wonder for another grand parent who is perhaps listening to her speak now, do you have anything that you might want to tell them, any words of advice, perhaps this is newer for them than it is for you now?

FLORES: It will get better with time. Just hang in there. Focus on the children. Keep loving them because that's what ultimately they need. They just need to know that someone will be there. And who better than you? So just hang in, and keep loving

CAVANAUGH: And Pam?

SMITH: Well, and we're really working as a community to offer more support to make it easier. We appreciate supervisor Cox's leadership and bringing it to the board. Unanimous support from the board it move forward with this. And in this tough economic times for governments, it's often we're not going to take on new things. But this isn't about money. It's better making sure the safety net is put together to help. And one grandparent even though it wasn't a financial issue, she said she still felt over womened. So we're really going to be working on this.

CAVANAUGH: Before you come up with these new guidelines, the stream lined plan, where can parents go -- grandparents go now to find some had services they may need in the county?

SMITH: Our number is 1-800-5102020, that's aging and independent services. And we can link them am or they could call 211. Either way, wee working closely with them. But if they're interested in getting involved in the work we're going to do, we want this to be a community effort. We want to hear. We've got great people at the table from agencies, but to grandparents who have lived through it. Upon so it's going to be an exciting opportunity for us to really add some strength to the community

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Pam Smith, director of San Diego County's aging and independence service, and Liz Flores, thank you both so much for speaking with us

FLORES: Thank you.

SMITH: Thank you, Maureen.

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