WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Grandmothers have long been the safety net for parents who are either unable or unwilling to take care of their own children.
Social workers refer to families in which grandparents raise their grandchildren instead of the parents as "skipped-generation" households. Grandma stands in for mom -- or grandfather for dad. Or, often times, one as both.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey, there are 6.2 million grandparents acting as primary caregivers for children under 18 years old. Of those more than 1.2 million are African American.
Children end up with grandparents or other guardians for a variety of reasons. But while most are more than willing to stand in as their grandchildren's primary caregivers many of them live on fixed incomes, which can pose significant financial difficulty for the circumstantial family, as well as other life-related challenges.
As millions of children head back to school, this means the need for new clothes; books, materials and school fees.
Retired social worker Geraldine Martin of Denver, who has just taken in her great-grandchildren, has to replace their entire wardrobe. The children's mother was recently incarcerated. And because of the related investigation, nothing in the house could be touched. All of the kids' clothes had to be left behind; therefore, "they need more clothes for school," she says.
"I'm supposed to be retired and enjoying my golden years," says Martin, who has already raised her children, grandchildren and, now, her great-grandchildren. "Instead I have to keep working to keep food in my grand kids' mouths. But I don't mind."
Even though she can barely afford it, Martin purchased her 6-year-old great-grandson a few new outfits and bought her 11-year-old great-granddaughter a couple pairs of shoes. Luckily, her two college-aged granddaughters are petite. They helped out by buying outfits and giving their niece a bunch of their own clothes and shoes.
Even though they are noisy and rowdy like kids tend to be Martin wouldn't have it any other way. She likes having them around. "It gets lonely, and I want to watch them grow up," she admits.
Martin, 68, is retired social worker but she picked up a job part-time helping to care for the mentally-challenged. Her income comes from retirement checks and Social Security. She receives some public aid for taking in the kids, which helps a lot she says. They maintain a shoestring budget.
When the children's mother became incarcerated she signed over a Power of Attorney to Martin so she could enroll the children in school and conduct other administrative and legal business for the children on their mother's behalf.
Martin's youngest granddaughter, a 19-year-old college sophomore, also lives with her and helps with the day-to-day raising of the kids because Martin does not always have the energy to keep up.
"Without her I never would've made it," Martin says of assistance of her live-in granddaughter.
It's not much of a transition. The kids have been living with Martin with their mom off and on since they've been born. With their mother incarcerated and facing a very serious charge, the situation may be a little more permanent.
Martin's story reflects thousands around the nation.
A 2005 University of Florida national study found that the largest racial percentage of children living in grandparent-headed households are Black. Terry Mills, associate professor who conducted the research, is cited in the report as saying that other research has found that Black grandparents acting as parents are more likely than their White counterparts to be unemployed, live below the poverty line and have larger numbers of grandchildren to care for.
According to Mills, nearly 8 percent of all children under age 18 currently live in homes with grandparents. Of these, 1.3 million are grandparent-headed households.
Grandparents are the safety net of American families, says AARP's family expert Amy Goyer.
Katherine Jackson reminded the country of that when her famous son Michael Jackson died in June -- leaving behind an estate and three children in need of a home.
"The transition can initially be a shock for both the kids and the grandparents," Goyer says.
The transition could include the sudden change in cramped living conditions and a change in work schedule and lifestyle in order to meet the needs of the children. In order to help with the mounting changes, Goyer recommends that caregivers seek out community grandparent groups that exist across the country and research and apply for the various public benefits that exist in local areas. One good way to aid in research is to utilize online tools that are available. AARP maintains a database on their website AARP.org with relevant organizations, state fact sheets and crucial laws that are applicable to grandparent caregivers.
"There are more grandparents needing help because of the current economic climate," Goyer says.
She said getting children's health care or enrolling in school could be a problem if grandparents or other guardians do not formally have legal custody of the children. The laws vary by state.
"A majority of grandparents don't have a legal relationship with the children they care for. It is usually informal," Goyer says.
Brittany Garner, 18, is having her 64-year-old grandmother raise her 2-year-old daughter while she goes away for her freshman year at Chowan University in North Carolina. But she's only a 45 minute drive away if any problems arise.
Garner's grandmother Vera White is already taking care of her 8-year-old cousin but White insisted that she help out with Garner's daughter because her granddaughter was having difficulties as a teenage mother.
Anyone in the neighborhood who needs help would get it from White, says Garner. "She's like a neighborhood baby-sitter or nanny," she says.
The Pleasanthill, N.C. grandmother has worked as a caretaker at a local nursing home for the past 15 years but has been raising kids for 35 years.
"I take care of little kids and I love kids," says the 64-year-old White.
Garner tried raising her son on her own for the first six months but was having a hard time financially. Her grandmother took custody of the child and now Garner can focus on her first year of school.
White helps Garner pay for her college and living expenses in addition to providing for her family.
"Sometimes she will go over her spending budget to take care of everybody," Garner says. "She gets up very early in the morning and takes them grocery shopping with her. Once she comes back she plays with them and helps my 8-year-old cousin with his homework."
When Garner calls, her daughter wonders if she's coming back. She says it was hard for her to leave her daughter to stay on campus. She plans on going home every other weekend.
"I guess it's hard for her also," Garner says. "When I left she was crying because she didn't know where I was going. She was heart broken. But I am too."