Deborah Paris never thought she would be raising children in her 50s. After bringing up her three daughters, she was ready to go back to school and pursue some lifelong goals.
But when Paris learned that her 9-month-old granddaughter had been physically abused -- resulting in a fractured skull and bruised ribs -- she fought for custody. Now, seven years later, 51-year-old Paris is the primary caretaker for her 8-year-old granddaughter and her two younger siblings, ages 7 and 6.
"People have said, 'You should have let them go into the system. You have already raised your children. Why would you be doing that?' " said Paris, whose daughter, Dikeuia, was charged with a felony in the abuse case. "I just couldn't understand how I could not take them in. They're mine. They're my daughter's children. Why would I want them to be in the system?"
Paris is not alone. Grandparents raising grandchildren is a growing trend in Columbus and across the nation, experts say. There are nearly 4.9 million children in the United States living in grandparent-headed households and the numbers are rising, according to information provided by the AARP.
Some, like Paris, intervene when parents fail to provide secure environments for their children. Others become caretakers after the death of a parent, and many are helping their children raise offspring due to the poor economy."As rampant unemployment and housing foreclosures ravage families across our nation, an increasing number of children are living in households headed by grandparents and other relatives, often three generations sharing scarce resources because of the recession," wrote Marian Wright Edelman of the Children's Defense Fund in an article on the AARP's website. "Nearly 7.8 million children live in households headed by a grandparent or other relative."
In Georgia, 102,126 grandparents are responsible for grandchildren living in their households, according to a state-specific GrandFacts sheet on the AARP's website. Forty-seven percent of the grandparents are white, 46 percent are black, 4 percent are Hispanic and 1 percent is Asian. Forty-one percent had no parent of the children present in the home, 69 percent were under the age of 60 and 25 percent were living in poverty.
Becoming parents again
Winnie Wimberly, 51, and her husband, Henry, 52, took custody of three grandsons last year after their 33-year-old daughter died from congestive heart failure. The boys are ages 13, 9 and 8. The couple tried to get custody of a fourth grandson, age 10, but the court put him in the care of his biological father.
Before retiring a few years ago, Henry served 20 years in the military and Winnie worked as an administrative assistant at Fort Benning. Together they raised four children and thought their child-rearing years had passed. They looked forward to relaxation and traveling.
"It's a big adjustment because we have to make sure that the boys have what they need emotionally, physically, everything," Winnie said. "But we don't mind doing it because we want them to grow up whole and healthy."
She said it's different raising the boys today than it was when she was bringing up her children.
"When I was raising my children, we didn't have to worry about too much of the Internet and what goes on out there in cyberspace," she said. "But now they're all into those electronic gadgets, so we just have to make sure that they are doing what they need to do when they're out there. It's challenging because they seem to be so far advanced than when I was raising my children."
Winnie said she and her husband also don't have as much spunk as they did back then.
"In school they're involved in this, they're involved in that," she said of her grandchildren. "Thank God for their Papa. I think he has a lot more energy than their Nana."
The Wimberlys, who live in Box Springs, Ga., said they get a lot of help from their other children. Winnie said raising the boys has put a financial strain on the family, but the boys' mother received social security for her disability before she died, and the boys still receive the benefits.
Struggling to raise grandchildren
But not everyone has that level of support. Paris said she has become grandmother, mother and father to her three grandchildren. While she does receive some help from friends, it can become overwhelming at times.
She's particularly concerned about raising her 6-year-old grandson, who she says needs a father figure in his life. So while the two girls go to Clubview Elementary, a public school, she has made the sacrifice to enroll the boy at Lighthouse Christian Academy, a private school, just to give him a fighting chance.
Paris, a hairstylist, said she had difficulty getting financial support for her grandchildren. When she went to local agencies, she was just bounced from one to the next. She said some of the assistance she applied for was only available to seniors 62 and over. She said she was supposed to get a relative subsidy from Cobb County for the 8-year-old, but that never occurred. She received a subsidy for the 7-year-old, she said, but when she tried getting assistance for her grandson in Muscogee County, she ran into a lot of red tape.
Paris, who is divorced, said she eventually got Temporary Assistance for Needy Families for two of the children, which is about $230 a month for the family.
But she found out last week that the assistance was terminated due to late paperwork. All of the children receive Medicaid.
When the economy tanked, she lost the home that she raised her daughters in. They're currently renting a home, but the family is still struggling.
"They have things they want to be a part of, extracurricular activities that I can't financially pay for," she said. "They want to go out to eat sometimes. They want to go skating. And while I do hair, my income has dwindled, and to get a second job and have to pay for after-school care or somebody to baby-sit for the night, I can't afford it."
Paris said she's also very particular about who's around her children, so she doesn't date or let just anybody baby-sit them. But she said she's blessed to have a group of friends who have provided support. Just last week, they surprised her with four new tires for her vehicle.
Paris is a parent volunteer who tries to make it to all the children's extracurricular events. She tries to create a nice home environment so the children will feel loved.
"I kiss them every night," she said. "We cook together. We sit down and eat together and we discuss things at the table."
Resources for grandparents
Ilona Preattle, program director for the River Valley Area Agency on Aging, said the agency's doors are always open to grandparents raising grandchildren. Through a program called Gateway, they provide area residents with information.
She said AAA also had Kinship Care program in Muscogee County a few years ago that included a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren. The agency would bring in speakers to educate the grandparents about Division of Child and Family Services programs, health and wellness and other topics. But attendance subsided, and the support group ended three years ago. She said a similar group still meets monthly in Stewart County.
Preattle said grandparents need a wide range of resources.
"It's not just questions about services for the grandchildren that the grandparents are struggling with. Grandparents are sometimes in an age group where they themselves need services. They themselves might not be very well and they might need a service and we're here for them as well.
"We're trying to become comprehensive in evaluating the family," she said. "So information and assistance is something we can offer right away to a grandparent raising grandchildren."
The state's Division of Aging Services also provides a host of supportive services to grandparents, according to the Georgia Department of Human Services website. Such services include a relative care subsidy of $50 per month per child and emergency/crisis intervention services, both for grandparents 60 and over. For the emergency/crisis intervention services, the grandparents must have income of less than 160 percent of the federal poverty level. DHS also offers legal aid services to relative caregivers of any age, and grandparents can also apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and other programs.
Paris said there's a lot more the state and local agencies can do to assist grandparents, especially those like her who are under 60.
"Our system will pay a foster care parent to take care of children and supply and do what they need for them," she said. "But me, as a relative or actually grandparent, you give me little to no assistance. ... Our system is just awful."