Four years ago Devel and Janice Spencer had life on cruise control. He was a truck driver and she worked for the state in a clerical position. Visual arts have been her passion, and she had begun fulfilling her dream of creating work and displaying her creations at shows and festivals.
Their lives were turned around when they learned their two grandchildren were in foster care. In fact, the sisters—both younger than 3– had been ferried through six foster homes in six months, according to Janice Spencer.
They were shocked.
The Spencers, who are in their late 50s, stepped up to the plate and opened their home to the girls. In doing so they joined a growing legion of grandparents nationwide who have assumed the day-to-day responsibilities of rearing their children’s children.
According to federal statistics, there are 3.9 million (6 percent) children in the United States living in a grandparent’s home, up 76 percent from the 2.2 million who did so in 1970. The U. S. Census Bureau reports that 2.4 million of the nation’s families are maintained by grandparents who have one or more of their grandchildren living with them–an increase of 400,000 (19 percent) since 1990. And according to a Pew Research Center study released in 2010, one in 10 American children now lives with a grandparent.
A just released June 2011 Census Bureau report shows a jump again in the grandparent-headed households from 1.9 percent in 2001 to 2.2 percent in 2004 to 2.5 percent in 2009.
As a result a number of programs and services have popped up across the country to aid both grandparents and grandchildren. The National Center on Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, based at Georgia State University, lists on its website 14 resources including AARP, Grandfamilies of America and the American Bar Association Kinship Care Legal Research Center.
In DeKalb County Twania Carr-Ferguson is the liaison with the Kinship Care Navigator program, which works with grandparents and other relatives providing children with care. Through the program, support group meetings are held and caregivers such as the Spencers are guided through the maze of regulations, paperwork and deadlines in an effort to get a range of support including financial and mental health.
Carr-Ferguson, who has been with the state program nearly from when it started five years ago, said grandchildren end up being displaced due to drugs, alcoholism, mental illness, etc. And the grandparents she deals with range in age from 30s to 80s. Some, she said, are even great-grandparents.
At a monthly support group meeting she holds, an average of 17 to 20 grandparents and other caregivers attend.
“DFACS can’t raise your children. They can only put them in foster care,” said Carr-Ferguson, who applauds the task they’ve taken on.
The challenges grandparents face are many.
“You have to go back to school,” said Carr-Ferguson. “You also have to be at school.”
School activities, teacher conferences, sports and other events and activities are what grandparents find themselves immersed in.
“My grandparents do it,” she said. “Most of them have bad health. Lots of kids have their own problems. Anytime you are not with your parents something is going on. They need to see a doctor, a psychiatrist.”
Back at the Spencer home, the family works to make what Janice and Devel thought would be a short-term fix into a longer term solution.
The children’s mother has struggled with substance abuse, according to Janice Spencer, and after meeting with Department of Family and Children Services (DFACS) case workers, the grandparents decided to take the children in for what they initially thought would be a few months.
It’s been three years.
“I didn’t know what I know now,” she said. And despite coming up with a plan for the children’s mother to secure a GED and employment, her daughter-in-law didn’t follow through and became pregnant again, she added.
“She wants to get her children back,” said Janice Spencer. “She’s trying to get her life in order.”
The Spencers, who reside in Decatur, have had their share of ups and downs. Health issues sidelined Devel from working as a truck driver for a while, but in recent weeks he’s gone back to work. Janice, who describes the arthritis in her knees as “severe,” said she isn’t working and has applied for Social Security benefits.
Janice Spencer says her granddaughters are loving children who desperately want to be with their mother. Each time they have a visit with her they are joyous and excited, but later they “grieve” when she’s gone. Since they have been receiving counseling from an agency, their grandmother said she’s seen positive improvements.
“They are a lot of fun,” she said. “It’s a challenge every day with them.”
And Janice Spencer has learned to cherish positive moments spent with the children. She said she’s learned to be more patient and has seen her husband’s tender side when he plays dolls with his granddaughters.