WASHINGTON -- Grandparents across America who are raising 3.2 million of their grandchildren face obstacles that are "changing their dreams as golden years turn into nightmares," a Senate panel was told Wednesday.
The epidemic use of crack cocaine and the explosion of out-of-wedlock births has resulted in a 40 percent increase over the past decade in the number of grandparents raising or helping raise their children's children, Rep. Tom Downey, D-N.Y., told the Special Committee on Aging. Many of them do so while caring for their ailing parents as well.
In both 1960 and 1990, the United States had about 64 million children, Mr. Downey said. But in 1960, only 243,000 were born to mothers who had never been married; in 1990 it was 5 million.
Dr. Evelyn M. Davis, assistant professor of Medicine at New York's Harlem Hospital, said there has historically been a high proportion of multi-generational families within the black community, but "we're seeing a different situation now. Crack is really tearing our families asunder."
Drugs, alcohol, physical abuse, crime and abandonment are among the reasons children are left to the care of their grandparents. In many cases, those children also suffer physical and mental damage from their mothers' drug and alcohol abuse.
Among the problems facing grandparents:
* Welfare and other public assistance programs are stacked against grandparents. Nationally, average assistance to grandparents is $109 per child per month; for foster parents it's $371.
* Grandparents must go through expensive guardianship or adoption procedures in order to properly care for their grandchildren. For example, some school districts will not enroll children living with grandparents unless they can prove legal guardianship. Insurance companies often refuse to provide health coverage. Social Security will not pay deceased benefits to children being raised by grandparents unless they had been formally adopted.
* Grandparents who attempt to remove their grandchildren from homes in which the parents are drug abusers, face a legal system that is prone to giving the mothers additional time "to clean up their act," even if the children are endangered or neglected.
-- Grandparents do not have standard visiting rights in every state. The result is that grandparents may have little right to visit their grandchildren who may be living with their daughter-in-law or son-in-law in a different state.
The problems have caused many senior citizens' "dreams of golden years turn into nightmares," said Sen. William Cohen, R-Maine.
Joan McMillin of Bellflower, Calif., told the senators of the horrors she and her husband faced in trying to obtain custody of their grandchildren, ages 4 1/2 and 5 1/2, after their daughter was stabbed to death by her ex-husband.
Although the grandchildren had lived with the McMillins since birth, their father had abducted them and placed them with his 18-year-old sister the night he murdered their mother. The sister refused to allow the children to return to the McMillins, and the courts and local social workers would not even let them touch the children at their daughter's funeral.
The children were removed only after the 5 1/2-year-old boy tried three times to kill himself.
Social workers attempted to find other relatives to place the children with, claiming that the grandparents were too old. In a court hearing on custody, Mrs. McMillin was on the witness stand for five days as lawyers questioned her life history back to 1955 and the end of her first marriage.
Two years after their daughter's death, the McMillins were granted legal custody of their grandchildren.
Mary Shaheen of Yarmouth, Maine, told how her daughter-in-law asked her to raise her grandson, Nathaniel, six months after he was born or she "would begin to abuse him."
"Needless to say, we happily took Nate home with us," Ms. Shaheen said. "While we felt that taking in our grandson was the most natural, instinctive impulse for any grandparent, it turned out that the rest of the world functioned as if we were a freak show at the circus."
Several efforts are under way in Congress to make it easier for grandparents raising their grandchildren.
An amendment introduced Wednesday to a pending child support bill in the House would make it illegal for any parent to interfere with visitation rights or child support requirements across state lines.
The House also is considering legislation by Mr. Downey that would make assistance payment to grandparents or other relatives the same as those for foster parents and would make it easier for grandparents to become legal guardians, foster parents or adoptive parents for their grandchildren.