Gladys Miller[i] has raised three families. First, she raised three children with her husband Steven. As those children have grown and started families of their own, she has chosen to step into difficult situations and raise several of her grandchildren. At age sixty-six, Gladys has guardianship of her twin six-year-old grandsons. She sat down with Focus on the Family to share what it has been like to be a grandparent raising grandchildren through kinship care.
“I’ve chosen not to use my real name, not just to protect my family,” she says, “but because this could be anyone’s story. So many grandparents have found themselves in my shoes and are raising their grandkids.”
In the State of Indiana, where Gladys and her family reside, it is estimated that there are more than 50,000 grandparents caring for their grandchildren.[ii] For every one child in foster care, nine are being raised outside of the foster care system through kinship care. Ana Beltran, the Director of Grandfamilies and Kinship Support Network, says, “There’s a notion that these families aren’t long-term and aren’t legally permanent. But that’s not what the data shows. A lot of these families go on for a very long time and a lot of the grandparents or other relatives adopt the grandchildren or get guardianship.”[iii]
As Gladys has discovered, kinship care and obtaining guardianship come with a unique set of challenges.
What is Kinship Care?
More than 2.4 million grandparents in the United States are raising their grandchildren in a long-term capacity.[iv] Almost half of these have had a grandchild living in their home for over five years. When a grandparent raises a grandchild, this is known as kinship care. Sometimes these families are known as “grandfamilies.”
Grandparents can find themselves in a situation where they must raise their grandchildren for various reasons. Some of these reasons may include:
- The parent’s youth or inexperience (for instance, a teenage pregnancy),
- The death of the parent(s), especially due to COVID-19 which left over 140,000 children orphaned,[v]
- The parent has physical, mental, or emotional health problems,
- Domestic violence, divorce, child neglect, abandonment, or child abuse,
- The parent is in prison,
- A lack of the parent’s financial resources,
- The parent has a drug or alcohol addiction,
- The parent(s) are deployed in the military
- A need for childcare.
These are not the only reasons a grandparent might choose to raise their grandchildren, but they are some of the most common. Whatever the situation, sometimes a grandparent finds it necessary to raise their grandchild, and many prefer to do so rather than let the child enter the foster care system.
Gladys and Steven have raised three children of their own. However, as adults, two of the three children have become involved with heavy drug use, leaving them unable to care for their children. “Drug addiction is a sickness,” she says. “There is a lot of trauma that happens to a family because of drug addiction. It separates families.”
Cassidy and Sarah
Gladys’ daughter, Cassidy, had three beautiful children. However, due to her drug use, all three of them were sent into foster care. Gladys and Steven wanted to take all three of the children into their home, however, they were only able to obtain guardianship of the oldest grandchild, Sarah.
Sarah was born when her mom was sixteen years old. Because of Cassidy’s age when Sarah was born, Gladys and Lyall already had guardianship of her that they didn’t have with the other two grandchildren. When CPS became involved, because the children had different fathers, Sarah went with Gladys and Lyall, and the other two children went to live with their dad.
“Kinship care also includes the care of elderly parents,” Gladys states. “While we were raising our granddaughter, I was also caring for my father.”
Sarah is now grown and has a beautiful child of her own. Her mother, Cassidy, is recovering from years of serious drug addiction. And Gladys is raising another pair of grandchildren.
Matthew, Grant, and Garrett
Matthew, one of Gladys’ sons, also became heavily involved in drug usage. He has four children, two of whom are adorable six-year-old twins, Grant and Garrett. However, the twins and their siblings had a rough start to life, as they were born with drugs in their tiny bodies.
The hospital where Grant and Garrett were born refused to release the babies due to the drugs unless they went into foster care, or went home with Gladys and Steven. They were born in a different state, and CPS placed them in foster care at birth. The parents accomplished the requirements to obtain custody of the twins, and the boys went back into their care.
Their youngest sibling was also born with drugs in her system and remains in foster care today. Their older sibling was born from a teenage pregnancy and was removed from her mother’s care because of neglect.
The twins lived with their parents for two years. Gladys traveled back and forth out of state for those first two years, and other in-state family members helped as well. However, the children were regularly without food and necessities, which Gladys would order and have sent to the house. When the twins came to visit for two weeks at Christmas, the parents never returned for them. That was four and a half years ago. Gladys and Steven filed for guardianship the first summer they were living under their roof.
Gladys and Steven chose not to involve Child Protection Services (CPS) to obtain guardianship. CPS did become involved for a brief period of time when Matthew and his partner picked up the boys for a visit and never returned them. When they went missing, Gladys called the police and a search began. Only after a neighbor reported a domestic disturbance were they found. In another incident, Matthew and his partner had stolen a car and had a loaded gun in their possession while they had the kids. CPS opened a case but dropped it shortly thereafter.
Constantly on guard for the parents who wanted to take the twins, Gladys and Steven succeeded in obtaining guardianship of the boys. They continue to maintain a close relationship with the two children still in foster care and their foster families.
A Devastating Loss
In June 2021, Steven was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away three months later in September. The loss was devastating to their family. The children grieved the loss of their grandfather who had been a constant fixture and figure of stability in their lives. Grant and Garrett also began to be afraid of what would happen to them if Gladys died too. She would overhear them praying, “Dear Jesus, please let Ma-Maw live as long as we do.”
Gladys realized that because of her age and potential for health changes, she needed to make plans to provide for the twins if she should pass away before they reached adulthood. Now, she takes comfort in knowing that Sarah, the granddaughter she once raised, will care for the twins if she is not present to do so.
However, Steven’s death put a strain on the family. Not only was Gladys’ partner in caring for the boys gone, but Steven had been the sole breadwinner of the family for many years. Now she was left with her retirement, and widow’s benefits from social security. The parents of the twins pay no child support to help her raise and sustain her grandchildren.
According to a March 2023 AARP Bulletin, 18 percent of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren live in poverty, and a quarter of those have disabilities.[vi]
She has struggled with the thought of getting a job to supplement their income, which would take time away from raising the boys who need extra care. However, God has provided in myriad ways for her family, and Gladys has the support of her church, the twins’ school, and many programs that help her support her family.
Continuing to Thrive
The twin boys have come so far from the challenges they faced at a young age. Both were born with drugs in their system, had serious social skill issues, and did not speak until well after they were two years old. Both boys have Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), and Gladys has had to learn to manage their overflowing energy. “I have to care for them differently and also provide their school information that helps with their dysregulation behavior. A kid who has experienced drugs or trauma is different. You have to learn to raise them and care for them differently.”
The boys are now six and a half years old and are thriving. They sometimes struggle with the question, “Are you my mother, or are you my Ma-Maw?”
And Gladys answers, “Well, I am raising you like a mother, but I’ll always be your Ma-Maw. And I’ll always love you.”
Kinship Care vs. Foster Care for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
“Kinship care is different from foster care. It has it’s own unique set of challenges,” Gladys says. “Kinship care should qualify for the same benefits and rights as foster care, but it doesn’t. And if you don’t involve CPS, there’s a lot you don’t qualify for.”
There are many facets to providing kinship care for grandchildren. Gladys has spent hours researching options to provide for her grandchildren and programs that can offer assistance. However, she has found that the same funds that are available for foster families to raise children are not the same that are available for kinship care.
Even if the twins’ parents would give up their rights to the children, Gladys can’t afford the fees to go through the adoption process. So, for now, she continues to love and nurture them through the role of guardian.
“There are programs out there, but they are incredibly hard to access. When you call, most people either don’t know what you’re talking about or they tell you that you don’t qualify for the program because CPS and the foster care system are not in control of the children,” Gladys says. She also states that foster care and adoptive families have advisors who can help them find available programs. “But who advises the grandparents?”
Government Support for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
Some of the biggest concerns a grandparent has about raising their grandchildren include the basics of care, such as providing food and clothing, getting them into school, and paying for medical care. Often grandparents providing kinship care face challenges when a parent still maintains legal custody. In 2018, Congress passed The Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act to help meet the needs of kinship care families.
In July 2023, the State of Indiana awarded extra money and benefits to foster care and adoptive families, but kinship care did not qualify for the additional funding. The state has also been awarded $507 million over an eighteen-year period as part of the National Opioid Settlement. How to spend the money is currently under discussion and on local meeting agendas. Who has been more affected than the children of the living and deceased addicts? With a 401k retirement savings, Gladys has discovered that she and her grandchildren do not qualify for food stamps or other financial assistance.
“I’ve contacted my state representative,” Gladys says. “Maybe if more grandparents contact their representatives, we can bring awareness to this issue and create a movement to help grandparents raising their grandchildren have the funds they need to adequately provide for their grandkids.”
Gladys’ story is difficult to tell, but she smiles through the tears. When asked how she is still able to smile after all she’s faced within her family, she says, “I’m a believer and overcomer. I couldn’t do this—raise my third family—without God. I could go on and on and on about how God has helped us and kept us safe.”
She continues to tell me about the people that God has placed in her life to help lift her up and support her and the grandchildren. Neighbors, friends, the school, doctors, and her church have stepped in to help in countless ways. When she had a few medical procedures earlier this year, her church pitched in to help her with the twins. Several organizations, including Head Start, have also come alongside her in amazing ways. “You can’t do kinship care without good people around you.” Gladys says, gratitude shining in her eyes as she tells me about the people who have stepped up to be Jesus’ hands and feet.
What support and encouragement would Gladys give another grandparent who is raising their grandchildren? “Focus on the rewards, and don’t dwell on the challenges. Focus on those hugs. When you feel their little arms around you, it gives you the courage to keep going.”
Resources for Grandparents Raising Grandchildren
While there are many resources out there for kinship care and support, the following resources are ones that Gladys and her family have found helpful.
© 2023 Carol Cuppy. All rights reserved. Used with Permission.
[iii] Paylor, D., & Sapin, Y. (2022 November). It Takes a Village. Today’s Woman Now Magazine, 20-23.
[v] Baime, A.J. (2023 March) Called To Parent Again. AARP Bulletin.
[vi] Baime, A.J. (2023 March) Called To Parent Again. AARP Bulletin.