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Second time around: Grandparents raising their grandchildren experience stress and frustration

Thursday, October 22, 1998

By Jean Bryant and LaMont Jones, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

These were to be their Golden Years. They've worked hard, earned a decent living, raised their children to adulthood. And now it's time to relax, reap the benefits of a life well lived.

Judy DiDolce of Duquesne gets a "kiss" from her grandson, Justin DiDolce as they wait for a doctor's appointment in Children's Hospital, Oakland. She is raising four of her grandchildren and expects to get custody of a fifth. (John Beale, Post-Gazette) 

But not for those attending the second annual "Day Out for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren," held last week at Vintage, Inc., a community center in East Liberty serving older adults. Their golden years have been put on hold as they have begun another child-rearing cycle.

According to the 1995 U.S. Census Bureau Report, an estimated 4 million children - and growing - live in a household headed by a grandparent. Theirs tend to be the least educated and financially poorest of all nontraditional households, with 58 percent of grandparent caregivers not graduating from high school and 27 percent of mid-life or older grandparent caregivers living at or below the poverty level.

Most often the grandmother is the primary caregiver. About 83 percent of grandparent caregivers are white, 13 percent are black, 3 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent are Native American.

These grandparents have stepped forward because the children's parents are either dead, ill, abusive, abusing drugs, incarcerated, deemed unfit to care for them or have just plain abandoned them. They soon find themselves caught up in an intimidating and worrisome web of legal, financial, behavioral, emotional, psychological and medical issues. It's stressful and leaves the grandparents with little time of their own, but they do it out of love and a sense of family duty.

  Related article:

Grandchildren often face tough emotional issues

One grandmother, among more than 80 who attended "Day Out" at Vintage, is raising her second grandson, but said her husband hasn't adjusted well and she prays he doesn't force her to choose between them.

"God has placed him here for me," she said of her grandson, "and I'm not going to disappoint him."

"It's hard sometimes," said Janet Carter, who's raising five grandchildren, including a 15-year-old granddaughter who recently had a baby. In addition, Carter's husband is on dialysis.

"I feel like giving up. Then I say, 'Oh, no. I can't do this to the grandchildren.' I just pray every day for extra strength to look out for my husband and family."

Five years ago, Rose Yost, 56, of Overbrook, was free to come and go as she pleased.

That was before Children and Youth Services - now the Office of Children, Youth and Family Services - declared her grandson a neglected child.

Yost felt compelled to step in and raise the child, then 3, as her own. Tony - the son of Yost's son and a former girlfriend - was in foster care two weeks before Yost was able to claim him and begin adoption proceedings. Yost still smarts over the shoddy way she says CYS turned Tony over to her.

"He was dirty and wearing mix-matched clothes. And they never came to my home to check me out.

"It was scary. I was divorced with one income. Finally after a year, I asked about help and they hooked me up with Second Chance. There is so much help out there and I was never told." Second Chance is an agency that prepares children in foster care for reunification with their biological families.

Yost, who raised two daughters besides her son, says it's not so easy the second time around. Her "long day" begins at 6 a.m. when she and Tony, now 8, eat breakfast together.

"I have to be at work at 8 a.m. So I drop him off at day care. They take him to school and pick him up from school. I pick him up from there."

More lenient with Tony than she was when she raised her children, she showers him with gifts and permits him to keep later hours.

"My kids had to be in bed by 9 p.m. With this one, it's, 'Aren't you tired yet?' "

Helping Tony with his homework and dealing with his frustration at his separation from his mother are Yost's biggest challenges, she says.

To help the child deal with his feelings, Yost placed him in a special class for children with emotional problems.

"He's got a lot of anger. He rarely sees his mom. It's a sad case. He blames the judge."

Yost says she constantly reassures Tony of her love but realizes it may be some time before Tony fully accepts the reasons for the separation from his mother.

"He says, 'I love you, but I want to be with my mom.' These children don't understand. They were taken from their parents but are in denial. As good as he has it here, he'd still rather be with his mother."

That Yost should experience some frustration with the challenges of parenting the second time around is normal, says Tom Smith, director of the Intergenerational Early Childhood Program, a component of Generations Together.

"I think it's safe to say that most families where grandparents have taken over are likely to be families existing in an environment that's difficult to start with, low income, bad housing, poor neighborhoods. Then you add in additional stress factors surrounding the absence of the children's parents, plus a painful drawn-out custody process."

That, coupled with mixed feelings about having to start over, can cause some frustration, even resentment.

"It's hard for many grandparents not to feel as though they failed at their own parenting," he adds.

Louise Johnson, 56, of East Liberty, would agree.

She raised two daughters and a son in Homewood and envisioned they would finish school, get jobs, get married and raise families.

"Their lifestyles turned out to be totally different," says Johnson.

As a result, Johnson is raising the child of her daughter, Shannette Mellix, 34. While Shannette had two children, Johnson was only able to take one sibling.

Johnson first got custody of the child, in 1991, when she was 3 months old. She was returned to her mother in 1995 but last year was put back into Johnson's care. Johnson has full custody of the child, now 7, and has begun adoption proceedings through CYS.

"I had to pray about it."

Johnson, a career counselor for Heavenly Vision Ministries Family Options in East Liberty, says the transition from a single life to becoming a parent again was difficult.

"Your whole life changes. You revert back to when you had your first child - the feedings, changing diapers, taking the baby back and forth to the hospital. She was on medication until she was 4. You're doing the same thing as when you had your own children."

Johnson, whose work entails working with children in foster care, says separation from their parents is a painful ordeal for children and their grandparents.

"I'm sure a lot of grandparents are angry - not at the grandchildren but because of the positions we are put in.

"I'm very angry with my daughter because of the two beautiful kids she has and, for whatever reason, they aren't with her."

For Carrol Younger, there is no anger. Just deep disappointment in the daughter who failed as the mother of eight children and in the 18-year-old grandson who often has a tough time being obedient.

Younger, 68, of Homewood was a widowed retiree 16 years ago and planning to move to Arizona. But when authorities removed his daughter's children from her custody, he decided to raise grandson C.J. rather than see the 2-year-old end up with strangers. Younger wanted to take in C.J.'s older sister, too, but feared he would be unable to meet the needs of a little girl.

Younger says he's tried to raise C.J. with the same values by which he raised his daughter and son, but discipline has been constrained by new laws. He has long talked to the Westinghouse senior about missing school, blowing off curfew, having true friends and selfishness, but he often wonders if his advice has fallen on deaf ears.

"On July 1, 1999, his suitcases will be sitting on the front porch," says Younger. "I've told him, and I think he doesn't believe me."

"This boy knows I love him. Maybe I love him too much. I feel for him, but I can't reach him. All I do is just pray that the good Lord will show me a way that I might be able to touch him."

Like Younger, Judy DiDolce arranged for legal custody of grandchildren through Children and Youth Services.

DiDolce, 53, of Duquesne, is raising four grandchildren as her own and waiting to take custody of a fifth grandchild. DiDolce's daughters, Robin , 35, and Kimberly Turner, 34, have not cared for their children for some time.

DiDolce quit her job as a cook for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh to give the children a stable home - a common sacrifice of grandparents thrust into parenting roles.

"I wasn't happy because they were in foster care. It bothered me they were being raised by someone else and that they were separated.

"There's Justin. He's 22 months. I got him when he was two days old. Angel Turner I've had since she was a year old, and she just turned 10 Friday.

"Jonathan is [almost] 16. I've had him off and on since he was 31/2. But now I've had him steady since 1991. I've had Amber, Jonathan's sister, since 1991."

Roberta Turner (Angel's sister), 11, lives at Bradley House Residential Center, a facility for children and families in crisis.

"I'll have full custody after she leaves Bradley," says DiDolce, who had to apply for disability two years ago because of diabetes and arthritis.

DiDolce says she has few problems with disobedience, although from time to time she may object to the children's taste in clothing.

Jonathan, DiDolci's oldest grandchild, "a respectful, good kid," helps her keep order.

"He tells the girls, 'What did Grandma tell you?' If they say, 'She ain't my ma,' he tells them - 'Grandma's the closest thing you'll have to a ma.' "

It was easy to see the worries and frustrations of grandparent caregivers at a recent support group meeting in East Liberty sponsored by Vintage and the Parental Stress Center.

One grandmother arrived from Philadelphia just over a year ago. In a numbing deja vu, the single parent became a single grandparent when she started caring for three grandchildren in 1994. She gained legal custody in 1995.

As her 5-year-old twin grandsons played in a nearby room, the Squirrel Hill resident described how she came to Pittsburgh to be closer to her daughter, the children's mother, who has since left the area. Now the grandmother, who has a master's degree and had hoped to build a career, has stopped working to care for the children. They live off her savings.

"I feel like the last thing I want to do in taking care of them is be a martyr," she said, "and I'm starting to feel like that. I don't want to feel like that."

The other grandmothers empathized with the nagging feelings of resentment.

"I didn't want to give up my life, either," said one, who adopted her grandchildren last year. "I felt like I had four grandchildren dropped in my lap."

Before the meeting ended, group co-facilitator Paula Davis distributed hard-cover books to the grandmothers and encouraged them to begin keeping journals. The grandmothers laughed as they read a quotation she had stickered on the front of each book.

"A grandmother is like a teabag. You never know how strong she is until you put her in hot water."

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