In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, it was hardly unusual for youngsters to live in the same home as their grandparents. The diminution in the number of people involved in agriculture, coupled with the growth of manufacturing and other non-farm industries, shrank the number of multi-generational households.
Today, that trend is changing again. In Pennsylvania, more than 81,000 children live with their grandparents, according to the AARP. Across the nation, the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy estimates that 2.4 million grandparents are raising 4.5 million grandchildren. These grandchildren live solely with their grandparents, who provide the financial support and parental direction these children need during childhood.
The growth in grandparents assuming parental roles is a relatively new phenomenon in America. The reasons for this drastic change in rearing responsibilities are understandable, if not downright discouraging. The most frequent reason grandparents become custodial caregivers, according to the AAMFT, is because of drug and alcohol abuse by the mother and/or father. Parental abuse and neglect is second, while incarceration of the parent(s) is the third most often given reason.
The burdens grandparents face in assuming these roles can be monumental. Most grandparents have not planned financially or otherwise to raise their grandchildren. The lack of clarity in regard to the legal status of grandparents makes matters even more challenging. It is sometimes difficult to gain in “loco parentis” (in place of a parent) status as a grandparent in Pennsylvania unless the child has lived solely with the grandparent for 12 months or the parent of the child is deceased. Divorce proceedings may also be grounds for grandparents assuming parental responsibilities, but, of course, there are many issues involved in these complicated cases.
The federal courts have produced few rulings that establish precedents about grandparental rights. It therefore often falls upon county judges to decide what is right for a child when there are disagreements about that child’s guardianship.
Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas Judges Tina Polachek Gartley and Jennifer Rogers have more than full dockets to fill their schedules as jurists. They spend inordinate amounts of time assuring that individual rights are upheld, while children receive the optimal chance to be raised by loving and caring guardians – whether they are the parents or the grandparents.
The alternatives to grandparents raising children all too often are foster homes or group homes. The paucity of good foster parents in Northeastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the country, coupled with the issues that often arise when children are forced into foster homes, makes grandparenting almost always a desirable alternative. Intact families and deep family ties that have traditionally been part of our culture in this region also bode well for grandparents raising their grandchildren when the alternative is feasible.
The Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), a newly formed volunteer organization, provides an excellent opportunity for people who want to help grandparents with their new responsibilities. CASA acts as a voice for children. Judges Gartley and Rogers appoint volunteers who act as advocates for children in the state’s Child Protective Services program. Occasionally these children are living with grandparents who simply need some extra help with the parenting pressures they face.
Luzerne County’s Children and Youth program also accepts volunteer help. It works to keep children with members of their families, including grandparents, whenever possible. The 20-member NEPA Intergenerational Coalition, headquartered at the Pittston Library, holds an annual meeting on grandparenting. It also helps grandparents and others who wish to volunteer find support groups to assist with parenting responsibilities.
While long-term data is hard to come by, it is intuitive that children who are raised by their grandparents get to experience their nurturing ways, along with the necessary discipline and love that enable them to become productive members of our community.
We should thank grandparents who are thrust into parenting positions. We should also acknowledge everyone associated with trying to do the right thing for these children who are being raised by those experiencing parenthood the second time around.