Toronto Sun

Census shows grandparents stepping up to raise grandchildren

By ELIZABETH SIMPSON, The Virginian-Pilot
June 1, 2002
Ulysses Freeman, 70, a widower, carries his sleepy grandson, Dontray Corbett, 4, to the bathroom as another day begins. Still sleeping is Deon Corbett, 6. Freeman also has legal custody of two other grandchildren, ages 14 and 16.
Photo by Bill Tiernan / The Virginian-Pilot.

They sit in a circle of folding chairs at a Portsmouth school, swapping stories about taking on parenthood for a second generation.

These grandparents raising grandchildren have long suspected that their numbers are growing, judging from the older faces at PTA meetings and soccer fields and pediatric offices. But it wasn't until the Census Bureau released Virginia figures this week from the 2000 Census that they had solid numbers to document the phenomenon.

In Portsmouth alone, 1,858 grandparents are the primary caregivers for grandchildren living in their homes. There are 15,667 such grandparents in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area and 59,464 in the state.

This marks the first time the census included a question on the long form about whether grandparents lived in the same household as their grandchildren, and whether they had primary responsibility for the children's care. The bureau had studied the issue through smaller studies based on national samples, but it had never done a city-by-city count.

Grandparents hope the data -- even though there are no past statistics to compare it to -- will increase awareness and help.

``The more people know about us, the better chance we have of getting better support,'' said 70-year-old Ulysses Freeman, a Portsmouth widower who is raising four grandchildren, ages 4, 6, 14 and 16.

Fifty-three percent of grandparents living with grandchildren in Portsmouth are the primary caregivers for the children, the highest percentage in the region. That compares with 44 percent in the metropolitan area and 42.5 percent in the state.

Virginia Beach has more grandparents raising grandchildren than any other city in the area, but it's also the largest city.

Donna Butts, executive director of Generations United, which advocates for grandparents, said the new census information is critical, not just in acknowledging these senior caregivers, but in lobbying for services and better government policies.

``We estimate that grandparents and other relatives provide $4.5 billion a year in services and support for their grandchildren, at great sacrifice to themselves,'' Butts said. ``The No. 1 thing that grandparents ask for is respite, a break, a chance to rest.''

The reasons for the trend vary. Sometimes the children's parents have died or are too sick to care for them. Some parents are incarcerated. Others are financially or emotionally unable to handle the responsibility.

Butts cites substance abuse as one of the leading reasons for grandparents' taking over parental duties from their children.

These first census numbers tell just part of the story.

The Rev. Clifford Barnett, a Portsmouth minister, remembers a woman describing how her son had dropped her grandchildren off at her home on Sunday night and picked them up again on Friday night. ``But I'm not raising them,'' she told Barnett, who responded, ``Yes, you are.''

``In their minds, they are just keeping them temporarily,'' said Barnett, who pastors at Brighton Rock AME Zion Church in Portsmouth.

Four years ago, Barnett began meeting with a half-dozen grandparents every Wednesday to talk about raising grandchildren. Today, 13 of these Grandparents as Parents groups meet at local schools.

``They are full of pride, so they're the last ones to say, `I need help,' '' Barnett said. ``But more people need to pitch in and to be more sensitive to their needs.''

One group met Wednesday at Lakeview Elementary School. Participants discussed trying to stretch retirement pay to support a family of five, how to physically keep up with toddlers and how to discipline teen-agers twice their size.

Freeman said he has trouble figuring out what types of services he's eligible for and what kind of financial aid he can receive for his grandchildren. His retirement pay prevents him from getting some kinds of help, such as food stamps.

He said his daughter and the children's father have ``flip-flopped'' in and out of his grandchildren's lives. ``When they flip, I flop,'' he said.

Thelma McCall, another member of the Lakeview Elementary group, raised her granddaughter because her daughter had epilepsy. McCall and her husband are now helping to raise her granddaughter's children, 2-year-old twins and a 10-year-old boy, because the granddaughter can't afford to raise them alone. ``It's like I raised three generations,'' she said.

Catholic Charities of Hampton Roads also offers Grandparents as Parents/Relatives as Parents groups -- seven in Norfolk, one in Virginia Beach, four in Newport News and one in Williamsburg. Minnie Thomas, the coordinator, said the groups started in 1997.

She said many of the grandparents are torn; they believe they need custody of their grandchildren, but they don't want to take their children to court.

Barnett said the census statistics will make the public more aware of a population that has been dubbed ``the invisible saviors.''

``This is the only new question they added,'' he said. ``They wouldn't have asked it unless people in power were recognizing this as a national problem.'' . .

Reach Elizabeth Simpson at 446-2635 or

RESOURCES FOR GRANDPARENTS For information about Grandparents as Parents groups in Portsmouth call 393-0570. For information about Grandparents as Parents/Relatives as Parents groups in Norfolk, call 625-2568; in Virginia Beach, 533-5217; in Newport News, 875-0060; in Williamsburg, 253-2847.

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