At a time when grandparents should be enjoying their retirement, starting a second career or simply spending time with their grandchildren, many find themselves parents again.
Kinship care -- the term for grandparents and other relatives raising the children of family members -- may not yet be a household phrase, but it is a burgeoning public-policy issue demanding our collective attention. The statistics are overwhelming:
Across the nation, according to the Census Bureau, grandparents and other relatives are raising more than 6 million children -- or one in 12 children -- outside the foster care system.
In New York State, more than 400,000 children are growing up in households headed by grandparents or other family members, and more than 140,000 grandparents are solely responsible for raising a grandchild.
In Erie County alone, more than 5,000 grandparents are solely responsible for raising their grandchildren.
What is causing this explosive growth in the number of kinship caregivers? Typical causes include neglect, alcohol and drug abuse, parents being incarcerated or parents finding themselves unable to care for their children. Whatever the cause, the result is the same: Children are being left behind in the care of their grandparents, who often times are the only resource able to care for these at-risk children.
Kinship caregiving puts a tremendous burden on these grandparents and other relatives who face a variety of obstacles, including difficulties enrolling children in school, trouble accessing or authorizing medical treatment and challenges obtaining affordable legal services, along with the added stresses associated with their increased financial burden.
Despite its importance and its prevalence, kinship care is an issue that has remained largely out of the public eye -- until recently. Thanks in large part to the advocacy of such organizations as AARP New York, the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights and the New York State Kincare Coalition, kinship care is garnering more of the attention it deserves. Governments, too, are beginning to step up to the plate.
The New York State Office for Children and Family Services, with the strong support of Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer, recently provided funding for a first-ever statewide program specifically dedicated to kinship care and caregivers' needs. The state awarded a $250,000 grant to Catholic Family Center in Rochester to operate the New York State Kinship Navigator Program (www.nysnavigator.org or, toll-free, 1-877-454-6463). This program provides a single resource for kinship caregivers across the state, with comprehensive information and referrals to legal, financial, educational, health/mental health, support-group and housing resources in their community.
Gerard Wallace is director of the New York State Kinship Navigator Program at Rochester's Catholic Family Center.