When one hears the phrase sandwich generation, it evokes visions of post-graduate adult children needing a spare bedroom and laundry facilities at their working parents’ house until the right-paying job comes along. The reality of multigenerational housing, however, is much more grim.
But the onus isn’t so much on the still-active parents of a semi-slacking Fine Arts degree holder; it’s on the grandparents who are spending their golden years raising their young grandchildren on their own. And the middle part of that sandwich, the parents? Conspicuously missing.
According to the United States Census Bureau, across the United States more than 5.8 million children are living in their grandparents’ homes, with more than 2.7 million grandparents taking on the responsibility for these children. And for one million children living in these homes with their grandparents, none of their parents are present.
There are several reasons why grandparents are finding themselves – once again – the primary caretaker of children; not for their children, but their grandchildren. In the 1970s, about three percent of children lived in grandparent-maintained households. Now, the number is double that.
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, typical grandparent/grandchild relationships were defined by holiday get-togethers and summer vacation getaways. But this pattern shifted in the 1990s and 2000s by the need of the adult children – and the grandchildren – for support, childcare and both short- and long-term co-residence due to teen pregnancy, divorce or financial hardship. Recent research backs this up, finding that people experiencing economic distress – brought on by such issues as the sluggish economy, slowly recovering housing crisis and high unemployment rate – are more likely to live in multigenerational households.
There’s a darker reason for the increase in parents dropping their children off with Nana and Papa for good: the pervasiveness of drugs and alcoholism. According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, more than 28 million Americans are children of alcoholics, nearly 11 million of which are under the age of 18. The number is magnified considerably when you add those children who have parents impaired by illegal drugs.
Three out of four child welfare professionals across the nation cite substance abuse as the top cause for the dramatic rise in child maltreatment. Additionally, these same professionals say that children of addicted parents are more likely to enter, and stay longer in, foster care.
Each year, nearly 12,000 infants are abandoned at birth or kept at hospitals, 78 percent of whom are drug-exposed. This is an indication that addicted parents would be prone to leaving their children with their own parents. Coupled with the dramatic rise in heroin use – the Centers for Disease Control have stated that deaths from heroin have quadrupled since 2000 – it’s no surprise the numbers of grandparents raising their young is high.
Adding to the conundrum is the fact that laws typically don’t favor grandparent/grandchild custody issues. Oftentimes, out of fear of being discovered and their grandchildren taken away by CPS, the grandparents keep quiet about the living arrangement and don’t avail themselves of services that might help them.
This ignorance, according to the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) “GrandFamilies” website, compels the parties involved to remain isolated. They lack information about the range of support services, resources, programs, benefits, laws and policies available to help them successfully fulfill their caregiving role. Ironically, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, grandparents who find themselves raising the grandchildren without the participation of either parent tend to be at higher poverty levels than grandparents living alone or providing co-residence with their own adult children.
So what if you are a grandparent who finds yourself with unexpected and permanent tiny house guests?
Grandparents play an important role in their grandchildren’s life, and can develop strong bonds that last a lifetime. Today, every state has some type of grandparent visitation law. Typically, in certain circumstances, grandparents may file suit requesting custody if they believe it is in the child’s best interest, and a court can authorize grandparent visitation of a grandchild if visitation is in the child’s best interest. These circumstances include the parents being divorced; one or both parents abusing or neglecting the child; one or both parents being incarcerated, found incompetent, or died; a court-order terminating the parent-child relationship; or the child having lived with the grandparent for at least six months.
But frequently the deck is stacked against the grandparents. Most visitation statutes do not give a grandparent an absolute right to visitation. Also, a grandparent may not request visitation if the grandchild has been adopted by someone other than the child’s step-parent.
Grandparents who are finding themselves are the caretakers of their grandchildren – whether their adult children are residing with them as well or not – must seek legal counsel immediately to get answers, protect themselves and their grandchildren, and benefit from services that may be available to them, especially if they intend to file for legal custody. Petitioning for an official kinship placement is a double-edged sword. The second an official record is opened, you have to see it through to the end, and you’re at the mercy of agencies like CPS if you even get to keep your own grandchild or minor family member. Carefully weigh your options before making a decision like that, and certainly try to talk with a lawyer who is dedicated to putting your family’s welfare first.