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When grandparents must step up

toy with child and older adult hands

Wide-ranging research has laid bare the experiences of grandparents stepping up to raise grandchildren due to their own child’s battle with drugs. It places enormous financial, physical and emotional stress on grandparents at a time when they should be free to focus on retirement. Matt Calman delves into these findings and talks with some of the grandparents behind the data.

Researcher, and former member of Parliament Dr Liz Gordon clutches the spiral-bound research to her chest. Pale-blue notes curl out from the edges of the thick document, marking pieces of precious information within. She says there has “never been a study like this in the world” on a trend that has been increasing worldwide in recent decades. None has offered such comprehensive information on what leads to children entering grandparental care or included such detailed accounts from the families involved. The research was commissioned by support and advocacy organisation Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) and funded by a $75,000 Lotteries Community Sector Research grant.

GRG Chief Executive Kate Bundle says the “incredibly rich data” will be a key lobbying tool to urge the government to provide more support for grandparents.

“We’ve always made a point to have accurate information and data to back up what we knew was happening on the ground.”

The survey was completed by 850 grandparents. Of 1,300 grandchildren, 579 (43 percent) came into grandparental care due to drugs – the most common reason given. Revealingly, the only drug cited by grandparents was methamphetamine (meth). Most cited multiple factors including domestic violence (40 percent), family breakdown (39.8 percent), neglect (39.8 percent), parents being unable to cope (38 percent) and alcohol abuse (25 percent). Māori accounted for 36 percent of respondents.

GRG has approached organisations such as the New Zealand Drug Foundation and the Health Promotion Agency to fund further papers on specific parts of the research, such as alcohol, domestic violence and drugs. One paper will focus on whether the grandchildren’s lives had improved in the care of their grandparents. Another will look at the experiences of Māori.

Gordon will drill deeper into issues such as the effects of parental separation, the significant drop in parent visits when drugs are involved, health issues arising from drugs and education outcomes (such as children with behavioural problems being stood down by schools).

dr liz gordon

Taking on the financial burden of grandchildren forces many grandparents below the poverty line. Many need to give up work, cut back hours or move. Many endure financially debilitating stand-down periods waiting to qualify for benefits.

Gordon cites the case of great grandparent Terry Kopu, who went public in September on the burden of raising her now nine-year-old great grandson, Kuldeep. Kopu gave up her job without notice in order to rescue baby Kuldeep from foster care and racked up credit card debt to buy him the essentials. She also faced a stand-down period for the Unsupported Child Benefit – of which about 70 percent of grandparents are eligible – because, to qualify, she needed to provide evidence she would have custody for at least 12 months.

“She should have been able to go in and get that ... but the 12-month thing is a terrible barrier,” Gordon says.

Bundle says it is often difficult for grandparents to meet the 12-month criteria as it relies largely on how frontline Child, Youth and Family (CYF) staff interpret the situation. Grandparents have been denied the benefit only to gain it later and then be told they should have received it from the start, she says.

“That is a real hole. We’ve lobbied the government to ... have an exception to the 12-month rule in some situations, but we have not been successful.”

GRG started in 1999 with just 10 members on Auckland’s North Shore after founder Diane Vivian put an advertisement in a local paper. Membership has now mushroomed to more than 6,000 members. The 2013 Census revealed there were 9,500 families where a grandparent was raising a grandchild. Bundle says Vivian fields calls during the week on GRG’s 0800 line and is daily counselling “grandparents at the end of their tether”.

Taking on the financial burden of grandchildren forces many grandparents below the poverty line. Many need to give up work, cut back hours or move. Many endure financially debilitating stand-down periods waiting to qualify for benefits.

Recently, Vivian had heard from grandparents who found their daughter smoking meth with her 11-week-old baby and three-year-old. In another case, a seven-year-old girl had been looking after three younger siblings while her mum smoked the drug and her father, who has a drug dependency, was at work. There are other stories of children’s interests suffering as their parents put drug use first.

Bundle says, “These kids are sick, their dogs are sick, and mum and dad just descend into this meth hell and they just lose the ability to be parents. And it is grandparents who are picking up the pieces.”

For 56-year-old solo-grandmother Jane (not her real name), the care and protection of vulnerable children is a common part of her job as a social worker. She stepped in to care for her two granddaughters, now both teenagers, after they were removed from her daughter and son-in-law who were dependent on methamphetamine.

Before Police and CYF intervened, she had suspected drugs were in the picture. Visits from her daughter dwindled, and the girls’ schools had started calling about regular absences.

“[My daughter] was going downhill rapidly, and the girls were starting to go downhill rapidly,” Jane recalls. “I’d go around to the house, and they were in a pitiful state.”

Methamphetamine use had left her daughter incredibly skinny, riddled with head lice and with pipe burns on her face. Her daughter remains angry and resentful, and they have become estranged.

At the end of last year, Jane’s youngest granddaughter began running back to her parents, which she says the authorities condoned.

She called CYF daily to plead with them to enforce custody rights she had gained in Family Court, but “they just kept fobbing me off”. With no back-up from the state and no practical way of preventing her granddaughter “voting with her feet”, Jane baulked at the $50,000 lawyer’s costs to return to court to enforce her custody rights. She has become disillusioned with CYF.

“They didn’t do their job. It’s OK for you to take over and look after your own ... but when you put your hand up to say I need some help, they’re not there for you. It’s on you.”

kate bundle

Bundle says the trend over recent decades had been an urgency to place children with family members to ensure their care and protection. After that, it was deemed the state’s job had been done.

“You’ve got a desire to place children quickly and to limit the financial burden on the state. Once they’ve got them in a place of safety, they’re technically no longer in need of care and protection. But there’s a gap there in terms of actually supporting those caregivers.”

One of Jane’s “greatest struggles” has been finding adequate counselling for the girls. Lack of treatment is often in the media, but a dearth of specialist support services for families is sadly “further off the government radar”, Jane says. One counsellor she took them to was visibly “stunned” by the girls’ stories. After the session, the girls did not want to go back.

“They need someone who’s not going to be surprised and shocked by their story. They just didn’t know how to deal with these girls.”

During her time as a Family Court lawyer, Bundle represented many grandparents who had to spend their retirement savings or sell houses to pay for legal fees. For those who qualified for legal aid, the charges were often attached to their homes.

“That’s been a big issue for many of our grandparents. It’s really, really tough for them.”

Jane has had to move twice since gaining custody and had to wait months before qualifying for a benefit. However, due to the age of her granddaughters, she has been able to continue full-time work. The girls’ trauma left them afraid of the dark and suffering frequent nightmares, and they were “incredibly angry and nasty” when they arrived. Late last year, “it just got so hideous and hard to manage” she considered giving them both up.

“Their behaviours were out of control. All their anger was aimed at me, and I was to blame for everything.”

This year, with just her eldest granddaughter remaining, things have started to settle down. School is going better, and her granddaughter has “hopes and dreams” of studying medicine or becoming a te reo teacher.

“She’s wanting to do the right thing. I do have some sense of hope for her.”

Bundle says she has seen many examples of grandchildren who, despite traumatic beginnings, have blossomed into the “most wonderful young men and women”.

“We know that grandparent care can work if it’s well supported. It’s now or never really, because we’ve got to get this right.”

The girls’ trauma left them afraid of the dark and suffering frequent nightmares and they were “incredibly angry and nasty” when they arrived.

The same problems are happening in the US. Late last year, PBS NewsHour reported there were 2.9 million children there living with grandparents in 2015, up from 2.5 million in 2005. Maria Moissades of the Office of the Child Advocate Massachusetts puts it down to the “current national opioid epidemic”.

“You’ve got grandparents who thought they were going to spend their retirement fishing and travelling. Now they’re raising [as many as] five grandkids.”

Gordon’s research revealed grandparents battling health problems – some were dying of cancer – and many of the grandchildren had significant behavioural problems or were suffering trauma and anxiety. Some children displayed symptoms of foetal alcohol syndrome or drug-related symptoms from their mother’s drug-use during pregnancy.

“The poor grandparents get left with a really enormous burden at an age and a time often ... that they’re not able to cope all that well,” Gordon says.

West Coast-based midwife Olivia (not her real name) is a solo-carer to her daughter’s two-and-a-half-year-old son. He attends kindergarten every day, and she has found a reliable babysitter who helps when she is called to work after hours. The 53-year-old, who is of Ngāi Tahu descent, once again finds herself juggling full-time work and childcare.

“I’ve been there and done it, and I’m tired,” she says. “There’s only me, and I’m on call. But love for him is too deep, so I have to deal with that. I love him to pieces.”

When Olivia’s daughter tested positive for meth during pregnancy, CYF became involved, and the prospect of foster care loomed. Olivia persuaded CYF to allow the baby to stay with her daughter under her guidance, but when her daughter relapsed (and was later violently assaulted by her new partner), Olivia took full custody of her then eighth-month-old grandson. It had been an “ugly” and difficult time for Olivia, who had just been made redundant, and at one point lived $400 below the poverty line. She soon gained a new job and has made ends meet with help from a weekly benefit of between $146 and $240.

Olivia says her daughter seems to be doing better and visits occasionally. However, the “dysfunctional life of a drug user” means she cannot cope with full-time parenting. Having her grandson is the best way of supporting her daughter.

Olivia says her grandson is an absolute joy when he is happy, but his behaviour is frequently hard to manage. Even getting through breakfast, dressing him and getting him into the car can be exhausting. Occasionally, she would love the respite of somewhere she could drop her grandson or someone to cook her dinner.

“It’s full on. He just fights me all the time. Sometimes I feel like I’ve done a marathon before I’ve even got to kindy. I can’t go to the wharepaku (toilet) by myself. I can’t do anything on my own. I don’t have any social life.”

Despite the hardships, she regards taking custody of her grandson as her responsibility. Looking after whānau members is also an important part of her culture.

“It’s just what happens. It’s part of who you are [as Māori]. I did have my life mapped out. I certainly never expected to get this, but what do you do? If they defer on their responsibilities, who else is going to pick up the pieces?”

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