In America, 2.4 million grandparents are guardians of their grandchildren.
By Tony Rehagen ~ Southeast Missourian
The cab pulls to a stop in front of the blue house at 1025 Good Hope St. in Cape Girardeau. Out steps 45-year-old Charlene Dalton in her nursing uniform, finally home from a double shift at Life Care Center of Cape Girardeau. It's 7 on a Thursday morning.
Once inside, Dalton heads directly for the kitchen, where she sets out the rib tips and pork steaks she put in the refrigerator to thaw the day before. She starts cooking the dinner Gabrielle and Brianna will eat tonight after Dalton has taken her cab back to work for another late shift.
While the food cooks, Dalton sits down at the kitchen table and checks over the girls' math homework from the night before, as she does every morning. Tired and struggling to focus, she reaches back in her mind for all the mathematical knowledge she's patched together from over 25 years of helping children with their homework, sometimes turning to the textbook on the table for reassurance. She wants so much to be sure that everything's right before she turns the work back over to the sisters, 9 and 8 years old, getting dressed for school in the back bedroom.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. Her youngest son, James, turned 18 two years ago. By that time, Dalton was supposed to be traveling, going back to school for physical therapy and taking time for herself after single-handedly raising three children and tending to as many as three jobs at the same time. But when her daughter, Shannon, died of an aneurysm in 1998, leaving 3-year-old Gabrielle and 2-year-old Brianna without a legal guardian, she felt she had no choice but to take them under her wing.
"They're all I've got left of my daughter," Dalton said. Since the sisters had different fathers, both of whom had been in and out of their lives, Dalton saw that taking legal custody would be her only chance to keep them together.
She is one of 2.4 million grandparents in the United States who for one reason or another are responsible for the grandchildren living with them. There are almost 1,000 people raising their grandchildren in Cape Girardeau, Bollinger, Perry and Scott counties.
The 2000 census found that 4.5 million children are living in grandparent-headed households in the nation. That's a 30 percent increase from 1990.
Mary Gosche is a human development specialist with the University of Missouri Extension Service in Cape Girardeau County. She coordinates support groups where grandparents raising their grandchildren share their troubles and experiences.
Gosche said the rise in the number of grandparent guardians corresponds with the increasing rates of divorce, drug and alcohol abuse and incarcerations among parents. These parents' children need stable care and guidance. Grandparents often provide the solution.
"The parents are in crisis, doing drugs, alcohol, going to jail. They can't take care of these kids," Gosche said. "The grandparents are doing it for the welfare of the children."
That's precisely why Charles and Diana McCoy of Randles, Mo., stepped in to take custody of their daughter's 2-year old son, Logan, more than two years ago.
"Mom and Dad decided that drugs and party life were more important than taking care of their child," Diana said.
She and her husband feared that neighbors were going to call the welfare office claiming neglect on the part of Logan's parents and that Logan would be taken away. So they decided to take action.
"I was not going to let my grandchild go into the system," she said.
Although the father refused to sign over custody of Logan to the McCoys, their daughter acquiesced, and Logan came to live with his grandparents. But it wasn't that easy.
In addition to having to fight Logan's father for legal custody, the McCoys soon found that raising a child on Charles' disability checks and Diana's paychecks from her job at Magna-Tel was a challenge. And without legal guardianship, the McCoys had limited rights to act on Logan's behalf, being unable to get him needed shots, medical help or even enroll him in school.
Hoping to solve those problems, the McCoys petitioned to become Logan's legal guardians. To do so, they took the Missouri Family Services Division's nine-week course on child-raising geared toward grandparents and foster parents.
Guardianship differs from adoption in that while the guardians make some decisions for the child, the child's parents maintain some rights. But in addition to being entitled to make decisions on the child's behalf, legal guardianship also enables the grandparents to receive government subsidies through certain state-funded programs. In Missouri, there's the Non-Parent Caretaker Relative Program and the Grandparents As Foster Parents Program. The former provides payment equal to the state's foster care subsidy rate. The latter provides guardians with a percentage of that rate, a yearly clothing allowance, respite care, legal assistance, a mileage benefit and child care. However, Gosche said Missouri's programs have been cut significantly.
Indeed, the $178 check the McCoys received every month as Logan's legal guardians has dwindled to a monthly $56. That check now has to supplement two disability payments since Diana McCoy hurt her back, forcing her out of her job.
Despite the financial troubles and the frustration of having to start over as a mom after raising two children of her own, Diane said those worries pale beside her concern for the health and happiness of her grandson.
"I thought I would have a chance to spoil my grandson and send him home," Diana said wryly. "Now I still spoil him, but I'm the one who has to put up with it all the time."
The McCoys continue to fight Logan's father and have formally filed to legally adopt their now-5-year-old grandson. Diana said it was her grandson's idea.
"He wants his last name changed to McCoy," she said.
The homework looks fine. Charlene Dalton sends it to school with its original owners, who head out to meet the bus to Franklin Elementary. With dinner prepared and loaded into the refrigerator to await tonight's reheating, Dalton walks with Gabrielle and Brianna to see them safely off.
Once the bus disappears into the distance with her granddaughters, Dalton heads back inside to do a little bit of cleaning, shower and go to sleep. She wants to be fresh and awake to see her babies come home from tutoring at 5:30 p.m. before she has to head back to work. If she could find a day-shift job to complement her graveyard nursing shift, she'd take it. She was not aware of the state's programs to help people in her situation but intends to look into them.
She already receives help for her little family through food stamps and Medicaid, but she constantly has to buy clothes for her growing girls. She's also trying to put some money away so her straight-A students have a chance to go to college.
"I never got to go to college. My daughter never got to go to college. My grandkids are going to get that chance," she said.
Dalton also feels the frustration of having to start single-motherhood all over again. She also rues the circumstances under which Brianna and Gabrielle came to be in her charge. But in a way, she sees them as God's providence.
"I miss my daughter more than you can ever know," Dalton said. "But I feel I've been blessed. The Lord gave me two chances to raise her again."
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