Kinship center offers resources to families

Sunday, June 1, 2003

P The numbers of children living with grandparents has grown in the past decade, experts say.

By Mitch Stacy ~ The Associated Press

TAMPA, Fla. -- Before Freddie and Edna Myles could get their own seven children reared and out of the house, the couple started taking in their grandchildren.

Those "grands" otherwise would have gone to foster homes because they were neglected by their own parents, who succumbed to drug addiction or ended up in jail. The couple have five "grands" now -- ages 8 to 21 -- living under the roof of their modest two-bedroom home.

The three boys share a bedroom, while a pullout couch in the family room doubles as sleeping quarters for the two girls. Freddie, 72, still works some in lawn maintenance. With three of the children still in school, Edna, 61, makes sure they are fed, get out of the house on time and finish their homework.

Challenges can overwhelm

The rewards are plentiful, but often the problems and challenges are overwhelming. Twice a month, Edna Myles looks forward to sitting down to talk with others who understand.

In a support group organized by the Florida Kinship Center at the University of South Florida, Myles and other family caregivers are able to talk through difficulties, share triumphs and generally help keep each other sane.

When one of her grandkids had repeated behavioral problems at school because of Attention Deficit Disorder, members of the group were there with advice and experts provided by the center helped her understand the condition and how the prescribed medicine works on it.

The support has been invaluable for Myles, who is slowed by kidney problems and struggles to shield her grandkids from the same lure of drugs and the street that caused some of her own children to stumble.

"Sometimes you think you're the only one going through something like this," Myles said. "But when we talk about what's going on with our grandkids, there's always someone out there who can listen to your opinion and listen to what you did. There are a lot of parents and grandparents going through the same things."

In this country, 2.3 million grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren. There are nearly 148,000 grandparents in Florida alone, a 33 percent increase in the 10 years since 1990, according to the Census.

About 345,000 children statewide live with grandparents or other relatives who are not their parents. About one-third of them live below the poverty level.

The crack cocaine epidemic caused the number of grandparents and family members caring for children to spike during the last decade, experts say, with more parents addicted or in jail than ever before and unable to care for their children.

Sacrifices for survival

Watching the number of family caregivers grow prompted the university's social work professors Aaron Smith and Anne Strozier to start the nonprofit center in 1998. It provides services and support, acts as a clearinghouse for information and helps raise the political profile of caregivers. The $850,000 annual budget comes from state and private money.

"They do so much sacrificing of themselves for others," Smith said. "We're concerned about their quality of live, their survivability. Because without them, where would these children be?"

Smith already had been conducting support groups for grandparents raising children in the Tampa Bay area, so that effort fit nicely into the center's mission. The network now includes 40 support groups in 18 Florida counties with plans to eventually extend services into 50 of the state's 67 counties.

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