“The family” has traditionally been the source of caring and support, especially for its old, young and dependent members. But the extended, or three-generation, family is now much less likely to occupy a single household and its role has been weakened, not least by greater mobility in modern society. The increase in divorce, de facto partnerships, re-partnering, blended families and sole-parenthood has affected family relationships.
Longer lives mean that the majority of families will experience four living generations at some point. Many more people will experience grandparenthood, and for longer periods, than previously. Most become grandparents for the first time in their fifties and by the age of 65 over two-thirds of adults are grandparents. Māori tend to become grandparents at younger ages, over half before the age of 45.
Grandparents’ involvement in their grandchildren’s lives ranges from having no contact at all (not always by choice), to grandparents who are raising grandchildren full-time. Grandparents are often seen as being the closest to parental carers and they can be flexible to meet work commitments, school holidays and family emergencies. Payment for childcare by family members tends to be the exception rather than the rule. Informal childcare provided by grandparents can be seen as a ‘gift’ of caring time, provided out of love. It is generally enjoyed both by children and grandparents. In a recent New Zealand Families Commission survey, 95% of grandparents agreed that “looking after my grandchildren is enjoyable and satisfying” .
Many grandparents, including myself (two small grand-sons), say that the best thing about grandparenting is that you can love and enjoy them and send them back. But what if “sending back” is not an option?
Grandparents raising grandchildren is not a new phenomenon. It has existed for centuries as a result of parental death or other emergencies. In some cultures it is normal practice. Traditionally, part of the role of Māori whānau has been whāngai, informal fostering or adoption of children by grandparents or other kin.
In the Families Commission sample of grandparents, 7% lived with one or more of their grandchildren. This represents around 47,000 grandparents in New Zealand. Pacific and Māori respondents were much more likely to be living with their grandchildren (42% and 25% respectively). It is important, however, not to assume that living in the same house means that grandparents are taking over parental care.
The issue of children being in grandparents’ full-time care has recently emerged as a social “problem” in developed countries which have public welfare systems and child protection legislation. The exact number of children involved is not easy to identify. The Families Commission survey estimated that 12,000 grandparents (2%) were raising grandchildren. Māori and Pacific respondents were five to six times as likely to be in this situation (12% and 11% respectively). Kinship carers, mainly grandparents, are likely to be older than non-related foster carers; 80% were aged over 50.
Most, therefore, are nearing or have reached retirement. Energy levels are less and the likelihood of physical illness is greater. Earning capacity may be decreased. Housing has often been downsized. There are gaps between the social expectations and pressures on today’s youth compared to when grandparents were raising their own children.
How do children come into full-time kinship care? Often there are several contributing factors. In summary, it is because the biological parents either cannot or will not care for the children satisfactorily. Neglect is the leading reason in the New Zealand surveys, often associated with drug and alcohol use, mental illness and domestic violence. Additional causes are imprisonment, physical illness of the children’s parents and abandonment. Death of a parent is sometimes the result of domestic violence or suicide.
Many kinship carers initially took the child/ren on an informal basis, without any legal arrangements or intervention from the Department of Child, Youth and Family. Sometimes this was expected to be short term, but became permanent. In the latest New Zealand research, almost a quarter of kinship carers still had no legal custody and/or guardianship status. Many cannot afford legal fees or fear that formal action will damage already fragile relationships with the children’s parents.
But formal custodial status may be needed for carers to receive financial help; to ensure that the children are secure and that carers can make important decisions, for example, about the children’s education and medical care . Otherwise the parents, even when they are drugged or intoxicated, can take children away at any time.
The majority of children in kinship care are now under a shared custody order, mostly with their biological parents. Kinship carers describe having to manage complicated and stressful access arrangements, with fears for the safety of the children.
Challenges to the legal status of kinship carers are common – one survey respondent experienced eight challenges in four years. Several had lost custody of the children through such challenges. Neither the caregivers nor their children can be sure that the placements are secure. Many kinship carers incur significant legal costs in seeking the custody of children.
The “problem” appears to lie not with the idea of care by grandparents, but in the circumstances which make it necessary for them to take over and in the legal and bureaucratic arrangements which surround such situations.