At 51, Mary Watts has raised her kids. She's worked nearly 30 years at the Social Security Administration and, in another life, might have been looking toward retirement and spending more time with her husband, Richard, 46.
Instead, the couple are tucking their three young grandchildren into bed every night, meeting with the kids' teachers, signing them up for summer camp, getting them to doctors' appointments and enforcing the rules of the house.
For them, the peace of an empty nest vanished on the day three years ago when Mary Watts went to see her six grandchildren - ages 3 months to 12 years - who were living in Baltimore with their drug-addicted mother.
The kids were scrawny and dirty. The baby had never been to a clinic, never had an immunization, Watts said. The older kids rarely went to school.
That was enough. Watts scooped up all six kids, loaded them into her Hyundai, drove back to her two-bedroom townhouse in northeast Baltimore and joined the growing number of Maryland grandparents who find themselves raising their grandchildren.
Census tracks trend
The 2000 Census counted almost 118,000 Maryland children living in households maintained by their grandparents, an increase of nearly 16,000, or 15 percent, since 1990. Some of those households, however, may include a responsible parent.
A separate Census Bureau survey last year estimated that roughly 51,000 Maryland grandparents - 15,000 in Baltimore - were responsible for the care of grandchildren younger than 18 living in their homes.
It is a national phenomenon in which Maryland's rank won't be known with reasonable accuracy until 2000 Census long-form data are released next year.
But experts in the field agree that the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren has been growing nationally for decades.
Drugs, AIDS, jail, death
"There has been a steady increase," said Georgia State University child abuse expert Susan J. Kelley.
"Seventy percent of the cases involve biological parents that are substance abusers," she said, and a high percentage have abused or neglected their kids.
A parent's mental illness, death, incapacitation due to AIDS, accident or incarceration might also cause grandparents to step in and take over child-rearing responsibilities.
Most of these grandparents are men and women in their mid- to late 50s. In Maryland, 65 percent are married and 61 percent are working, the Census Bureau estimates. Only 14 percent had income below the federal poverty line last year.
Grandparents say parenting is more difficult the second time around.
The children might be crack-addicted at birth, emotionally disturbed or learning disabled. And the grandparents find themselves coping with social realities they never faced as parents.
Supervision and direction
"It's hard to raise kids in Cherry Hill," said Mary Morris, 57, who has taken three of her drug-addicted daughter's children - ages 8, 10 and 13 - into her small apartment.
"You see so much out here. ... There are young men who don't want to go to school, don't want to work. They just want to be on the street," she said. Her grandchildren need supervision and direction every minute.
"It takes a lot out of you," Morris said. There are times she is so overwhelmed, she retreats to the bathroom, "a place you can go to be by yourself."
Sometimes, she said, "I just scream."
When Mary Watts brought all six of her daughter's children home, their deprivation quickly became apparent. When she served them cereal, the oldest child told her siblings to save some to eat later.
"I told them Gramma and Grampa could get some more," Watts said. But they continued to steal food from the kitchen. Watts found food, or food wrappers, under the kids' beds.
"The oldest one went to school not to learn, but to gather food in the cafeteria to bring home to her siblings," she said.
The eldest child even noticed Watts' initial awkwardness while bathing the infant, took the baby from her grandmother's hands and finished the job. "I had to de-program her to be a child," Watts said.
Need for help, support
Grandparents like Watts and Morris are frequently overwhelmed by their grandchildren's problems, and their own, and they seek help where they can find it.
When the six grandchildren proved too much for Watts and her husband, they asked the oldest child's father to take in the 12-year-old girl. Two more went to live with their paternal great-grandmother, age 70.
When the youngest grandchild began vomiting and crying in day care, Watts turned to her own mother. "She knew how to work with crack babies, and she taught me," Watts said. The other two grandkids are being treated at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
The burden of three young children and a full-time job sometimes left Watts nervous and exhausted. At one point she suffered a seizure that put her in the hospital.