Unofficial guardians need official blessing

March 11, 2001|By Susan Reimer

WOMEN AHEAD of me in life have often said that grandparenting is the best kind of parenting.

Children come to their grandparents with unconditional love and kisses, but with a return label firmly attached. All the love and affection and none of the bruising fights or sleepless nights.

For an increasing number of grandparents, however, grandchildren arrive suddenly and in crisis, and stay for months if not years.

The parents of these children -- and the children of these grandparents -- might have died or be dying of a terrible illness. They might be in jail, in the service, in rehab, in a mental hospital or simply missing.

The grandparents cannot bear to turn their grandchildren over to the foster care system, so they take them into their own homes. Suddenly, a woman (it is most often a woman) who might have been looking forward to her own retirement must find a crib, a highchair, a car seat, another bed.

But the real hassle begins when she tries to enroll them in her neighborhood school, take them to a pediatrician, arrange child care or get them special services.

That's because grandparents -- or aunts and uncles or devoted friends -- have no legal standing. This informal custody, while it may be the best thing for the child's emotional well- being, is fraught with legal obstacles for the guardian, who may be afraid to ask for help for fear the social service system will take the child away.

A bill before the state legislature this term might have eased the bureaucratic nightmare for those acting out of love. Sponsored by Sen. Delores G. Kelley (D-Baltimore), the "kinship care" bill would have provided authorization for the custodians of these children to enroll them in school, make educational decisions, seek health care and other entitlements.

"It is clear to me that the people who take these children in are in a Catch-22 situation, and the children are not well served by the public system," said Kelley.

These guardians are doing the state a service by keeping these children out of the foster care system.

It is children, as always, who are the innocent victims of their parents' mistakes and misfortunes, but the kin who take them in are the silent sufferers.

Though their numbers are difficult to pinpoint, Kelley said, the state Department of Human Resources estimates there are 30,000 children in some kind of informal kinship care.

According to a report in the June 1999 issue of the Journal of Aging Studies, their caretakers are most often white grandmothers, though African-American grandparents are almost twice as likely as their white counterparts to be raising their children's children.

Their median income is just $18,000, and almost half are classified as poor or near poor. Most work outside the home and many are already caring for other relatives. They are often in poor health, but are more likely to skip appointments with doctors. And they often suffer the silent rebuke of the community for their perceived failures in raising their own children.

These women are rescuing children from a burdened and often brutal foster care system. They are overwhelmed by the needs of their sudden family, yet they fear asking for help. They are spending their golden years loving these children, yet they have no authority to request special education or give permission for an appendectomy.

What they need is legal standing and a place where they can go for support, information or a new mattress by tonight.

The kinship care bill introduced in the Maryland General Assembly would have done little enough. But it was killed in committee.

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