Nonprofits help Georgians who are stepping in to raise their grandchildren

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Christine Owens was working as an in-home caregiver when she gained legal custody of her grandson, Kayden. He was just a couple of months old, and she soon suspected he had special medical needs.

She balanced her job with visits to pediatrician after pediatrician, looking for a diagnosis for a condition she couldn’t name. As one of many Georgians raising grandchildren and still trying to remain part of the workforce, she found the situation nearly impossible.

Christine Owens and her granddaughter, Angel. Owens found support through Project Grandd, a Kinship Care navigator.

Credit: contributed by Project GRANDD

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Credit: contributed by Project GRANDD

The numbers

Latest numbers on put grandparents living with and responsible for their grandchildren under age 18 at nearly 94,000 in Georgia. That number represents 36.3% of grandparents living with their children’s children statewide, a statistic that’s slightly higher than the national average of 32.7%.

Any way you slice it, there’s a significant number of Georgians responsible for their grandchildren across the state.

State funding for kinship care, an arrangement that encompasses people raising their grandchildren, has historically been lower than funding for foster families, which can leave children and their caregivers vulnerable, according to Rainie Jueschke. Jueschke is executive director for Innovative Solutions for Disadvantage & Disability, the Decatur-based nonprofit that administers Project GRANDD, a navigator program for kinship caregivers across the metro area.

According to the Georgia Department of Human Resources website, kinship care arrangements are often informal agreements between relatives — like when parents agree to let grandparents raise children. Other kinship care situations, the site explains, can arise when the child welfare system becomes involved.

Although kinship caregivers may be eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, and the children they’re caring for might be able to get Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, both programs are income based, so simply providing for a minor relative doesn’t guarantee qualification, according to the DHR site. There are also income guidelines for an ongoing TANF supplement called Grandparents Raising Grandchildren.

When grandparents have stepped in to raise grandchildren, Jueschke said, they’ve often relied on their own resources.

“The vast majority are outside of the foster care system,” Jueschke said. “(There’s) no guidance, no financial support, no assistance.”

Sherri Feliccia, a Project GRANDD case manager with donated baby supplies.

Credit: contributed by Project GRANDD

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Credit: contributed by Project GRANDD

Although new rules from the Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families may change that circumstance for many families, kinship caregivers have commonly faced myriad challenges. Food insecurity and difficulty buying clothing and school supplies, Jueschke said, have been common, but she believes that if children can’t be with their parents, then residing with grandparents is usually the next best thing.

“It’s a huge financial struggle,” she said. “We have children living in poverty when they don’t need to be. … Our goal is to provide the best possible services to support kinship families because these kids are in the absolute best place that they can possibly be.”

And for caregivers stepping in for a second round — or sometimes even third — raising children, holding down employment is one more complication.

“Now, they’re juggling a full-time job and raising grandchildren at an age when they didn’t think they’d be doing this,” Jueschke said.

Finding help

For Owens, now 52, Project GRANDD has sometimes been her only source of help.

Early on, Owens noticed Kayden’s head was more football-shaped than round, but visits to pediatric providers didn’t result in a concrete diagnosis. A Babies Can’t Wait caseworker urged her to take Kayden to Emory University, where a surgeon diagnosed him with sagittal craniosynostosis at 3 years old. Essentially, Owens explained, the skull sutures babies are born with had closed too early; the football shape is typical in these cases. Kayden had to undergo surgery in March 2018 to open the skull and put in metal spacers so his brain could have room to grow.

Although the shape of Kayden’s skull has changed to appear more typical now, he has continued to experience complications, including seizures that ended only recently. Now 8, he’s also facing ADHD, autism and a learning disability, Owens said. She recalled times when he was very young and she was working more when her level of fatigue was so high she was afraid of falling asleep at red lights while driving. She had to give up lots of luxuries, cable TV included.

When Kayden was 3, his little sister, Angel, was born, and Owens secured legal custody of her, too. Trying to work with two small children at home was already hard. Those efforts ground nearly to a halt during the pandemic when Kayden needed homeschooling. Owens had to give up lots of hours, and paying her mortgage was difficult.

One of Kayden’s doctors recommended she join Project GRANDD, where she’s found relief and can lean on her caseworker.

“The caseworker is available at all times,” she said. “Sometimes, I just need to vent and get it out. … They call you back.”

The program’s support groups let “you pour yourself out — all your challenges, all your sorrows.”

Right now, she’s still working as a caregiver and in the youth program at her local YMCA once a week. When she began with the YMCA, she worked significantly more, and she could take Kayden with her. His tendencies toward aggressive behavior, however, meant she couldn’t leave him in the child care program, so she had to step her work way back. Today, the challenges of getting Kayden to his various appointments often torpedo her attempts at steady work.

“It’s like juggling,” she said. “Sometimes, I can’t even work. I just have to be off.

Project GRANDD has helped with respite care when she needs it, and the program, she said, advocates for grandparents to keep up with their own care through routine physicals.

A recent Project GRANDD trip to the High Museum in Atlanta

Credit: contributed by Project GRANDD

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Credit: contributed by Project GRANDD

Because of the amount of work she has to miss, she’s needed help paying her mortgage. Project GRANDD, she said, not only has aided her in securing that help but also in providing holiday gifts for Angel and Kayden, and even food.

“They have showered us with food,” she said. “I’ve asked for a dozen eggs. They’ll give you 18.”

At work/at home

Eelnora Chambers, of Rome, knows well the challenges Owens faces. She stepped in to raise her grandson and granddaughter when her daughter died in 1986. The children were ages 5 and 2 at the time.

The work Chambers found in a local carpet mill was physically demanding, and staff cuts meant multitasking. She had to work on her own machine to keep it running. If a spool ran out of yarn, she had to stop things, put another spool on and thread it.

“I did three people’s jobs,” she said. “That liked to work me to death.”

Elnora Chambers, an employee with Grands Who Care, headquartered in Rome, Georgia, has received help from the organization as she’s raised her three great-grandchildren.

Credit: contributed by Grands Who Care

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Credit: contributed by Grands Who Care

She left the mill and went to work as a cook at a nursing home. Her schedule was still grueling, and the tasks she performed at work mirrored those waiting for her at home.

“I had to go home and prepare the meals and have their meals ready for them when they came home from school, and then get them ready to go to bed, and it was a hard job to get them in the bed because they wanted to stay up,” she recalled.

Chambers was able to secure disability benefits for herself after a time, and she turned her full attention to her grandchildren. But she wasn’t done caretaking; she was 65 when she began raising her great-grandchildren. Today, she has custody of three of them — all girls — ages 15, 17 and 18. And she’s working again.

Her position with Grands Who Care, a nonprofit designed and administered by Mercy Care Rome and funded through the state’s Kinship Care program, has her doing office tasks and helping to serve meals for GWC’s tricounty meetings. Mercy Care, according to its website, is a Trinity Health and St. Joseph’s Health System federally qualified health center, and Chambers’ employment is made possible through the state Department of Human Resources Senior Community Service Employment Program. Grands Who Care, serving Polk, Chattooga and Floyd counties, offers support in the areas of informal counseling, support groups, health management, family recreational gatherings and location of other resources.

Chambers became involved with GWC about a dozen years ago when she needed help with clothing, school supplies and holiday gifts. She hears stories all the time from other grandparents.

“I thought I was having it bad, but to hear other grands who were raising more than I was and to hear what they go through, it’s kind of heartbreaking,” she said.

Her job keeps her busy folding flyers, calling participating grandparents to remind them of meetings, putting together surveys, purchasing groceries for the meals at the meetings and buying school supplies to distribute.

“It’s not a dull moment,” she said, chuckling.

Equal funding and kin-specific foster caregiver approval

In September, the White House announced the federal Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families had issued new regulations to allow individual states to make simpler the process by which kinship care providers can become licensed or approved foster care providers.

The rule change will “require that states provide these family members with the same financial support that any other foster home would receive,” according to a Biden-Harris Administration fact sheet.

The freedom individual states have to set kin-specific standards for approval, however, could induce snags for kinship caregivers looking to become licensed or approved as foster care providers, according to Jueschke.