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A Niagara Falls group that assists grandparents acting as guardians is expanding.

For a variety of reasons -- drug and alcohol abuse, incarceration, illness or death -- more and more children, primarily under the age of six, are being left by their parents. Often, they're turned over to unprepared relatives who have neither the financial means nor the legal rights needed to support these abandoned youth.

More than 500,000 children in New York are currently under the supervision of adults other than their parents, officials said. Nationwide, the number may be as high as five million, according to Paula Smith of the Grandparents as Providers support group in Niagara Falls.

"A lot of the parents of these children are just not equipped to handle their responsibilities, and as a result, it has almost turned into a generation of throw-away children. It's become quite an epidemic," said Mrs. Smith, who works with grandparents and other relatives of abandoned children.

According to Mrs. Smith, the large numbers are nothing new, and are growing.She cites substance abuse as a major reason for the increase.

"Drugs and alcohol can do awful things," she said.

Mrs. Smith said she assists grandparents and other caregivers who are finding it difficult to cope with the often frustrating custody dilemma.

"More than 60% of the instances where a grandparent takes a child and many times, children, into their home become permanent. So many of them choose to, because if they didn't, the children would end up in foster care and there is so much of that already, we don't need anymore foster care," she said.

Mrs. Smith said many factors can make taking in these young children not just emotionally challenging, but physically as well.

"There are a lot of emotional issues to deal with as well as physical. It's not easy at 60 years old to deal with small children. Not all of their friends are dealing with this problem and so isolation becomes a big part of the problem. There are so many things they can no longer take part in like bridge club and other groups," she said.

Guardians also find themselves financially strained with their new responsibilities.

According to Jane Embrosky, director of education at the Mental Health Association of Niagara County, relatives do not receive any financial assistance when they take in these children. Unlike foster-care homes which may receive supplemental income, grandparents and other relatives are left to fend for themselves.

"A grandparent will call here and say they have legal custody of a grandchild, but every time they go to social services for assistance they are told they are not eligible. There are so many issues that are unclear because this issue is still so brand new," Ms. Embrosky said.

She said two bills currently being considered by the State Legislature, the Kinship Care Act and the Promotion of Adoption, Safety and Support for Abused and Neglected Children Act, would help caregivers.

"It can be hard for them in so many ways because they don't know about raising children in the '90s. They come from a different time," she said.

Ms. Embrosky also said the caregivers are having a hard time filling the basic needs of the children like enrolling them in school, because legally, they are told, they have no rights.

"Their legal rights are very limited, agreed Mrs. Smith. "You don't have any paper work; you don't have anything in writing. This makes it tough, and the system isn't up on these technicalities yet."

Mrs. Smith does offer some hope and help to grandparents and others who find themselves faced with an unplanned guardianship.

"We talk and get together," she said of the group, which meets the first and third Friday of each month at the John A. Duke Center, 1201 Hyde Park Blvd., Niagara Falls. "If you have other people with the same problem, it's easier to deal with. There's a bunch of us now, and more are always welcome."

Mrs. Smith said she offers various speakers, including lawyers, stress experts, police, and others to help answer questions about child abuse, scams, legal issues and custody matters, among others.

Anyone interested in learning more about the group or getting answers to their questions can call the Mental Health Association at 433-3780. All calls are confidential.. Mrs. Smith said that Ms. Embrosky is starting up more groups for grandparents and other caregivers in Lockport and North Tonawanda.

"The Mental Health Association is becoming very involved with this issue and is trying to offer a lot more support groups. We realize that this is a trend in the '90s, and one that is still new to everyone, politically, educationally and mentally. It will need to be continually researched," said Ms. Embrosky.

"I've definitely seen an increase in frustration," Mrs. Embrosky said. That's why she is so eager to help these renewed parents. "Now instead of the golden years, where grandparents could take a trip or relax, they are back to being parents. Most of them say that the child has brought a lot of happiness into their lives, but it's something that was totally unexpected. Now they have to do the parenting thing all over again."

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