Grandparent guardians on the rise

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Grandparents club, Marshall High

photo by John Booz

Grandparents club, Marshall High

Mary Anna Brown, 74, sits in the attendance office at Marshall High School waiting to discuss her great-grandson’s spotty attendance record. Classes have been in session for only a month yet he has already missed five days.

The 15-year-old freshman is the oldest of five great-grandchildren whom Brown adopted a few years ago following her granddaughter’s death. “I didn’t want them to grow up in a foster home,” she says.

But raising them on her own is a daily challenge to Brown’s energy and financial wherewithal. “I’ve got five children in three schools,” Brown frets as she watches the clock. “I’ve got a new prescription, and I haven’t had time to go get it filled. I have to be home at 1 to meet the bus” for her 14-year-old who is physically disabled.

In Chicago and across the country, more and more grandparents, and in some cases great-grandparents like Brown, are caring for offspring whose parents are unable to raise them. Some become foster or adoptive parents, but most are unofficial guardians who step in before the child welfare system intervenes.

It’s a growing trend nationally and locally. According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the number of children living in grandparent-headed households is up 30 percent since 1990. In Chicago, the number of children living with relatives who are not parents rose 23 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Many of them are grandmothers. “I have a lot of grandmothers who have taken on their daughter’s children,” says Cathy Williamson, an assistant principal at Schmid Elementary in Pullman. “A lot of times all grandma can do is feed and clothe them.”

Indeed, grandparents who are raising grandchildren are more likely to be poor than wealthy, according to AARP. Brown, for example, gives her son daily bus fare, but not lunch money. “You can come home and eat,” she tells him. “Plenty of food.” She hopes the short leash will keep him off the streets, too.

School officials often see generous grandparents stretching their limited incomes to care for children. “They don’t always have the resources to raise children,” observes Ernestine Rice, teacher assistant for attendance at Marshall High. “Most grandparents split their little monies to raise the grandchildren.”

Rice founded Marshall’s grandparents club, a monthly support group whose members also serve as mentors to students. The group helped Johnnie Mae Riley, 72, keep her grandson, Jason, on track to graduate.

Riley had been parenting Jason since he was 3, but he hit rough times in high school. “He was coming to school high, hanging out, cutting class,” she recalls. “He would never go to class.”

Riley enlisted members of the grandmothers club to set him straight. “They all knew his face,” she says. “When they’d see him in the hall, they said, ‘Go to class.’ He got where he couldn’t ditch his classes anymore.”

Attendance assistant Rice tries to persuade Brown to join the group. “I bet our grandparents here could help you,” she offers. “I’m sure they could,” Brown responds.

Rice gives her the dates of the next meeting, and Brown says she’ll try to attend. But later, Rice acknowledges that Brown’s hands are already full and says she hopes she’ll have enough time and energy to make the next meeting.

School officials observe elderly caretakers often lack the energy to keep up with children, supervise homework and advocate for them at school. “I find that to be the biggest problem with foster children,” says Principal Jacqueline Anderson of Young Elementary in Austin. “They try, but it’s still overwhelming.”

Physical stamina is even more important when grandparents are caring for a child with a severe emotional or behavioral problem. At Montefiore Special School, a facility for disturbed boys, many of the 17 foster children attending this year are living with a grandmother, says Principal Mary Ann Pollett.

For Brown, who also cares for a special needs child, taking care of her great-grandchildren is a matter of faith. She refuses to give up on her eldest, though she is worried. “He don’t come home after school. I never see his homework. I never see him study. I’m getting upset.”

Still, Brown says she’s not going to give up. She encourages him to talk to a relative who is younger than she is, and if he drops out of Marshall, she says she will help him find another school. “When I finish up with [my great-grandchildren] late at night, I lay down and ask for strength for the next day, ” she says.