My daughter is my granddaughter’s sister.
There is an interesting niche of foster care overlooked by many foster care communities: grandparents fostering grandchildren. Grandparents lose their children for various reasons, and while processing their own grief, they often find themselves with custody of their grandchildren. This unique situation sometimes finds grandparents awkwardly fighting their children in the courts. It is an especially emotionally charged dynamic and adds an additional layer of complication to an already grueling process. At the age when most grandparents are retiring and living their golden years, these grandparents find themselves relearning new school curriculums, navigating Google classrooms, and having to familiarize themselves with processes and language that didn’t exist when they raised their children. While many of their peers are at a time when they can finally afford to travel, they find themselves with the care of a young child all over again. It happens more often than you might think, and these grandparents would have it no other way.
Waukesha Health and Human Services social worker Linda Senger and her colleagues started to see more of these same cases come across their desks and recognized these children and families needed additional emotional support they had not been receiving. Waukesha County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) started the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Peer Support Group five years ago to meet the needs of grandparents and their grandchildren in Waukesha County. Waukesha County DHHS subsequently began to partner with Healing Hearts of Southeast Wisconsin to provide programming for the grandchildren during monthly meetings. This program has been extremely successful in meeting the unique needs of this group. There is no cost to participants.
Judy, a grandmother in one such family, shares how she found herself in this circumstance. Judy said she and her husband started the process of grief long before they fought for their granddaughter’s custody. “We started grieving when we realized our child was not capable of taking care of our grandchild.” Judy’s granddaughter lived in a drug house for five years while Judy sat on the sidelines without answers. Judy’s daughter had mental complications and got involved with the wrong people. She couldn’t stop her daughter from making her own choices, but didn’t want her granddaughter to become a victim. She knew her daughter couldn’t parent a kindergartner, but she could not just take her. There must be an incident to prove the child was neglected or abused. That incident came when they found their granddaughter locked in a hotel room with their daughter’s boyfriend, who was under the influence of narcotics.
“The whole apple cart was tipped over,” Judy says. They had to pick up the good apples and try again. Judy and her husband had to go through all the fostering classes, court dates, and the endless paperwork that is all a part of foster care. Judy and her husband have had to walk a tightrope while grieving the disappointment in their child and the loss of their retirement plans and social niche. Sometimes, the kids recognize the difficult place their grandparents are in and may wield it against them. The child’s parents may or may not be cooperative with the court. The grandparents’ only option is to continue to wait. In contrast, social services continue to provide parents with every opportunity to prove themselves capable of caring for their children.
Kids in this group often feel like they do not fit into any support system. Coupled with the grief of the loss of a parent, or even just a typical, functioning home, they also face the stigma of not feeling normal, a social status every child desperately seeks. When kids are raised by their grandparents, their parents (grandparents) are older than all their friends’ parents, so they do not fit in with young parents. While other retirees participate in activities, grandparents cannot bring young children. The situation, many times, leaves children feeling stigmatized and alienated.
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
Healing Hearts of Southeast Wisconsin meets with the grandparents’ group once a month, providing dual support for the grandparents and guided discussions for the kids and activities for the younger children. Waukesha County Health & Human Services staff facilitates support group discussions and coordinates guest speakers to educate grandparents on topics anywhere from monitoring their children’s online activity to dealing with the courts. Grandparents can come together with other grandparents coping with similar issues and support one another. Grandparents get the needed education to help them support their children with unique needs while at the same time feeling safe to be vulnerable with others who are dealing with the same circumstances.
Support for Children
Children experiencing loss often feel stigmatized. Children desperately need to feel normal, but when their world has been shattered, they feel distinctly not normal. When they hear their own tangled emotions echoing back to them from the heart of another child, they feel a sense of relief no other support system can provide.
Grandparents in this group have said they did not realize how much emotional trauma they stored up and tried to soldier through. They have complications piling up on complications, and at every corner, they are reminded of the loss of their child and feel torn between the love for their child and the love for their grandchildren. While they work with the courts, they fear for the emotional well-being of the kids. The kids need to understand, and grandparents find themselves explaining to the children things they wish they didn’t have to know themselves. Getting approval to adopt their grandchildren, as with other foster families, often feels like every unfortunate or embarrassing moment is gone over with a fine-toothed comb. The Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Peer Support Group provides a place for these grandparents to share their experiences while also providing them perspective.
Judy said, “We have families that have been part of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren for five years. Others have checked in and stayed for a while and then moved on. Some come and decide they no longer need the support.”
Judy‘s story has settled to a somewhat happy ending. Their daughter has fought off drugs for the time being. However, she understands that the battle is never over. She can get low-income housing and has maintained stability. Their granddaughter is awkward around her mother, but she has a stable childhood, if not almost normal. Judy doesn’t think she will ever have to deal with their granddaughter trying drugs. She has seen what it has done to herself and her parents. She understands now that her parents were mentally ill.
My grief and pain are mine. I have earned them. They are part of me. Only in feeling them do I open myself to the lessons they can teach. ~ Anne Wilson Schaef
At the center of the positive changes are many vital elements: the guidance and support of Healing Hearts, the welcoming environment Waukesha County Health and Human Services has created, and the love these dedicated grandparents have for their grandchildren.
To learn more about the Healing Hearts of Southeast Wisconsin, click here to go to their website.
A special thanks to Katie Green from Healing Hearts of Southeast Wisconsin for her guest blog post contribution!