Lola and Bill Bailey of Friendly, West Virginia, are grandparents' rights ambassadors who travel the country in a 2005 Gulfstream, advising grandparents raising grandchildren on setting up grandparents groups and spearheading legislative efforts to further the interests of their "grandfamilies." Founders of Grandchildren/Grandparents, Inc. of West Virginia, the Baileys travel and speak under the auspices of the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights, an umbrella group that assists grandparents raising grandchildren with program referrals and advocates grandparent-headed family-friendly legislative action.
The Baileys speak on behalf of the 2.6 million grandparents raising grandchildren in this country, a number that has increased 4 percent since 2007 according to census data. These grandparents, who step in to fill a family need for surrogate parents, fill a pressing social need as well: they raise 6 million children who would otherwise be in foster care. And the number of children raised by grandparents dwarfs those raised by foster parents. Only 500,000 children live in formal foster care arrangements in the United States, according to the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights, one-twelfth the number who reside with grandparents.
Yet, the system that benefits so heavily from grandparents' willingness to step in and raise their grandchildren often discriminates against them, giving them less funding than is given to formal foster parents. The New York Times reported that in Florida, grandparents receive only half the amount of financial assistance received by foster parents. The disparity between funds available to grandparents raising grandchildren and foster parents is primarily the result of the 80 percent of grandparents who raise grandchildren without legal custody arrangements. Without legal custody, they don't qualify for benefits available to assist legal custodians with children's expenses. Yet, obtaining formal legal custody typically requires legal assistance that can be cost-prohibitive and may create ruptures in already strained family relationships.
Grandparents who step in to stabilize the lives of their grandchildren often do so at the expense of their own financial stability. Many elderly people live on fixed incomes that don't easily accommodate the demand from additional family members. The National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights says that 19 percent of grandparents raising grandchildren nationwide live in poverty.
And the numbers of grandparents risking impoverishment to rescue grandchildren from troubled situations seems likely to increase. Amy Goyer, an American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) expert, predicts that substance abuse, teen pregnancy and mental illness will continue to fuel the establishment of grandfamilies.
While the number of grandparents taking on responsibility for raising grandchildren has increased, funding for services to assist them, which has never been ample, has begun to dwindle as the economic recession forces social service program cuts. Even the National Committee of Grandparents for Children's Rights has suffered program cuts, with its New York office losing a state grant this year that constituted about 8 percent of its funding, according to The New York Times.
The outlook for grandparents raising grandchildren is not entirely bleak, however. While many social service program funds have been cut, some communities are developing innovative new solutions to problems faced by grandfamilies. In Boston, Hartford, the Bronx and Baton Rouge, apartment housing built specifically for grandfamilies has appeared. These units meet the need for modestly priced housing large enough to accommodate children and simultaneously create a support group for the grandparents coping with the issues of raising the next generation. Some of the apartment buildings house subsidiary services such as after-school programs and social workers to assist the grandfamilies.
Some government assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (formerly AFDC) provide funding for children living with grandparents despite the absence of a legal custodianship, and those with low incomes may qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly Food Stamps). In addition to financial help, grandparents may find solace in connecting with similarly situated grandparents and receiving advice from those who have walked the same road. Grandparents' rights organizations can provide such assistance and help by advising grandparents to obtain notarized statements from the children's parents authorizing them to sign for necessary medical care.
Lately, Lola and Bill Bailey have stationed themselves in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia, allowing Lola to take the train to Washington once or twice a week to meet with members of Congress to and seek legislative solutions to some of the issues facing relative caregivers.