People from a wider kinship group are frequently called upon to care for children during a family crisis. They are often grandparents, but may also be aunts, uncles and other relatives. We will call them kinship carers, because that term is used in the literature, but we are focusing on grandparents raising grandchildren.
It is not surprising that many children who have been subjected to neglect or abuse, or, at least, unsatisfactory living conditions, experience physical and psychological problems and learning difficulties. Over half the kinship carers in New Zealand surveys reported that the children suffered from physical illness or disability. Asthma was the most prevalent condition, plus eczema, frequently occurring together. Psychological or behavioural problems are almost as common as physical problems, with many children experiencing both. Grandparents whose grandchildren were affected by foetal alcohol or “shaken baby syndrome” experience additional grief, knowing that the damage was caused by their own children.
On the other hand, children in kinship care often experience greater stability and continuity of family and community relationships than they would have with their natural parents. They are less likely to experience changes of school and have fewer behavioural problems than their peers in foster care. Educational progress of course depends on many factors, such as health and intelligence; the extent of trauma and abuse which they have suffered; stability and length of placement; caregiver involvement with school and their ability to assist the child.
The newsletters of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) Trust contain many reports from grandparents on positive changes observed in the children in their care. It is heartening to hear of children and young people becoming independent, gaining confidence, self-control and self-esteem; socialising with others and doing well at school.
Grandparents raising grandchildren are not only taking on full parental roles, but are often doing so in difficult and stressful situations. It is not surprising that there are significant impacts on their health, especially when a child has psychological or behavioural problems. Some carers report physical injury and verbal abuse from the children or from their parents. In extreme cases, some have had to seek Protection Orders or Trespass Notices.
The social activities of kinship carers are often severely limited. In recent surveys, just over half of respondents said they had no social activities. Many said their only social life was the activities of the children, such as school and sporting events. Many activities which they used to enjoy, such as bowls, bridge, golf and Rotary, were now out of the question.
Raising grandchildren has a huge impact on the employment circumstances of carers. Many have to stop work, reduce their hours and take early retirement. If a carer leaves work there may be difficulty in regaining employment at a later stage of life. Others have continued to work after expected retirement age to supplement their income, because superannuation does not meet the financial needs of a young family, especially with childcare costs.
Even though Orphans and Unsupported Child Benefits may be available to kinship carers, they often face serious financial problems. Caring for any child is expensive, but when he/she has on-going physical, emotional and educational needs, the cost can be unmanageable. Numerous examples of hardship and of resourceful economising behaviour are reported by the GRG Trust. A recent newsletter showed how funds for “grandad’s boat” had been diverted to pay for lawyers’ fees. The Trust also documents ongoing efforts to obtain fair financial support from Work and Income. The most common reason cited for financial stress is the necessity to give up work, followed by legal fees.
Many grandparents find the legal system frustrating and confusing, as well as expensive. Battling the complexities of the legal system and the capriciousness of unreliable parents results in added stress as they try to achieve safety, stability and permanency for their grandchildren.
As well as needing a larger house, or modifications to accommodate grandchildren with disabilities, some carers had to move to another district to ensure the family’s safety or for educational reasons. Some moved into their children’s locality to lessen disruption. Some have had to buy a smaller or cheaper house, rent, or re-mortgage to free up capital to support the children or pay legal costs. In cases where taking on grandchildren had contributed to a marriage break-up, housing problems could be even worse.
Despite the stress, worry and anxiety, the tenacity of grandparents and other kinship carers and their dedication to the children in their care shines out clearly. All is worthwhile when the children begin to thrive and regain normality. For some children, the care and the love received has given rise to extraordinary achievement against great odds.