Grand­par­ents again

El­ders rais­ing grand­chil­dren in­creas­ingly com­mon in Ok­la­homa

The Oklahoman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY JU­LIANA KEEP­ING Staff Writer jkeep­ing@ok­la­homan.com

Bev­erly Dow remembers the call from child wel­fare.

“Did my son-in-law kill my daugh­ter?” she asked, brac­ing her­self.

No, was the re­sponse. But her five grand­chil­dren were be­ing starved to death.

Dow picked them up and brought them to her home, where they have been ever since that cold day in Fe­bru­ary 2012. As fast as she could get food onto their plates, it was gone.

“We’re not go­ing to get any­thing else to eat,” Jaelon, then 7, told his broth­ers and sisters, urg­ing them to eat fast.

“Their clothes were filthy. They were filthy,” Dow recalled. “It took us a week to get the dirt off of these chil­dren. I’m not ex­ag­ger­at­ing. A week. They were cry­ing. They were hun­gry.”

Dow, over­whelmed and an­gry at her own chil­dren, sat down and cried.

But in the years since, she’s got­ten stronger. She’s had to. The five chil­dren she took in 2012 joined three oth­ers she adopted from an­other daugh­ter in 2008. Dow, 56, and her hus­band, Howard, 52, are to­gether rais­ing eight grand­chil­dren, age 6 to 14, a sce­nario that in re­cent years has be­come more com­mon, ex­perts say.

Ac­cord­ing to U.S. Cen­sus Bureau’s 2016

Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Sur­vey, there are 2.5 mil­lion Amer­i­can fam­i­lies in which the grand­par­ents are rais­ing grand­chil­dren, up from 2.4 mil­lion a decade ago. In Ok­la­homa, there are 88,443 fam­i­lies like the Dows, up from75,586 ten years ago.

Par­ents are los­ing cus­tody of chil­dren for three main rea­sons, said Terry Mulkey, of Ag­ing Ser­vices Inc. of Cleve­land County, who for the last five years has su­per­vised a voucher pro­gram for grand­par­ents rais­ing grand­chil­dren.

“It’s ei­ther they’re in­car­cer­ated, they’re drug ad­dicts, or they just don’t care,” Mulkey said.

Ok­la­homa’s high rate of fe­male in­car­cer­a­tion, closely tied to ad­dic­tion and tough drug sen­tenc­ing, helps drive cre­ation of grand­fam­i­lies, ad­vo­cates say.

Groups like Ag­ing Ser­vices Inc., are step­ping up to help this grow­ing pop­u­la­tion.

Ag­ing Ser­vices dis­trib­utes vouch­ers in Cleve­land, Cana­dian, Lo­gan and Ok­la­homa coun­ties that grand­fam­i­lies use in a var­ity of ways. Some use the voucher to hire child­care, while oth­ers use it for things like equine ther­apy or swim les­sons for their grand­chil­dren, while oth­ers have re­lied on the vouch­ers to pay for child­care while un­der­go­ing their own medical pro­ce­dures.

The pro­gram is pop­u­lar and usu­ally runs out of fund­ing half way into the fis­cal year, said Mulkey.

Help and hope

The Ok­la­homan in­ter­viewed grand­par­ents from three dif­fer­ent fam­i­lies where par­ents have lost cus­tody of chil­dren for is­sues rang­ing from ad­dic­tion to men­tal ill­ness to child abuse.

All said they were de­ter­mined to keep their grand­chil­dren out of the fos­ter care sys­tem and the fam­ily in­tact.

They said they ap­pre­ci­ate the help they re­ceive, but still fre­quently find them­selves drown­ing in red tape when ap­ply­ing for as­sis­tance and some­times strug­gling to even put food on the ta­ble.

The ex­pe­ri­ence comes with mas­sive chal­lenges, said Tap­rina Mil­burn, a so­cial ser­vices co­or­di­na­tor with Sun­beam Fam­ily Ser­vices, an Ok­la­homa City­based non­profit that serves grand­fam­i­lies.

“If you think about it, here they are, re­tire­ment age typ­i­cally, be­gin­ning a whole new life that their peers are not. Their peers are re­tir­ing, go­ing on trips, and now, they may be rais­ing an in­fant. They can be rais­ing a high schooler; they could be rais­ing eight grand­chil­dren.”

Grand­par­ents also raise grand­chil­dren dur­ing mil­i­tary de­ploy­ments or fol­low­ing the death of par­ents, Mil­burn said.

For 16 years, Sun­beam has or­ga­nized pop­u­lar school sup­ply and Christ­mas toy drives aimed at help­ing grand­fam­i­lies in Cleve­land, Cana­dian, Lo­gan and Ok­la­homa coun­ties.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion, which helps about 200 grand­fam­i­lies, in­clud­ing 600 grand­chil­dren, each year, also rec­og­nized that the ex­pe­ri­ence of par­ent­ing grand­chil­dren can be iso­lat­ing, said so­cial ser­vices co­or­di­na­tor Talena Ford. Sun­beam be­gan of­fer­ing sup­port groups in all four coun­ties.

Linda Thele said she is over 65, lives in Moore and is rais­ing six grand­chil­dren by her­self.

When she took on the chil­dren, friend­ships evap­o­rated.

“Fifty five-plus? They don’t want to deal with young chil­dren all the time. That’s my idea. That’s the mes­sage I got.”

She be­gan to mod­er­ate one of Sun­beam’s sup­port groups to as­suage the iso­la­tion she and oth­ers felt on their new jour­ney. The grand­par­ents still meet once a month.

Grand­par­ents must ad­vo­cate not just for their grand­chil­dren, but for them­selves, she said, and ask for help.

The sup­port group gives its mem­bers hope, she said.

“Ev­ery­body re­al­izes that you’re not alone in this group. In this as­pect of your life, you’re not the only one do­ing it. There are oth­ers, shar­ing the same ex­pe­ri­ence.”

A dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion

Dow, a nurse, and her hus­band, each had ca­reers and were ready to save money and travel when they mar­ried in 2007. Life sent them in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion.

The chal­leng­ing cir­cum­stances were enough to de­stroy the new union, but didn’t. She and her hus­band are de­ter­mined ad­vo­cates for their eight grand­chil­dren, two of whom are autis­tic. An­other child has se­vere men­tal health is­sues. Dow started work­ing the night shift to be able to drive them to var­i­ous ap­point­ments and make sure their needs were be­ing met at school. Four of the eight chil­dren see a psy­chi­a­trist.

“At first I felt like, I was be­ing at­tacked. ‘Why did this hap­pen to me? Why should I have to have eight kids and not en­joy my life?’ Then I sit back and think, ‘Where would my grand­chil­dren be if I didn’t have them? I would never get to see them. Maybe I would get a phone call, say­ing ‘We need you to see if you can iden­tify your grand­child be­cause they were mur­dered.’ I know where my grand­chil­dren are and I’m at peace with that.”

She said she has not felt iso­lated on her jour­ney, thanks to her hus­band and a solid sup­port net­work. The most stress­ful as­pect of keep­ing the chil­dren has been fend­ing off court chal­lenges from her daugh­ter and son-in-law, which re­quires a $200 per hour at­tor­ney.

“When we got to court I fought so hard to hold on to my grand­chil­dren,” she said. “I know what their life would be if they went back to their par­ents.”

Bar­bara John­son lives on a fixed in­come and is rais­ing two teenage boys and a teenage girl after her daugh­ter strug­gled with se­vere post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. Her daugh­ter is in the process of heal­ing, which gives her a sense of peace.

“I’m get­ting up in age, so she needs to be able to take care of these kids,” she said.

John­son, 68, re­lied on Ag­ing Ser­vices vouch­ers to pay for child care to al­low her to re­cover from a se­ries of health set­backs.

The re­tired coun­selor said her pen­sion means she makes too much money to re­ceive as­sis­tance with food or hous­ing. While the chil­dren have Med­i­caid, it doesn’t cover spe­cial­ists who can deal with the teenagers’ com­pli­cated health needs. She isn’t able to af­ford braces for the chil­dren.

“It’s been dif­fi­cult,” John­son said. “But I was blessed to have de­cent grand­chil­dren. I just say ‘Thank the Lord.’”

Mulkey, who ad­min­is­ters the vouch­ers, funded by a fed­eral grant with a small per­cent­age match from Ok­la­homa, said the heads of grand­fam­i­lies, most of­ten sin­gle fe­males, fre­quently skip meals and ne­glect to re­fill pre­scrip­tions in or­der to feed, clothe and house their grand­chil­dren. The pro­gram tries to help where it can with a patch­work of ini­tia­tives, like a food pantry, and by dis­tribut­ing gift cards from area churches.

Ok­la­homa grand­fam­i­lies say seek­ing help from the state leaves them tied up in pa­per­work. Some grand­par­ents, said Dow, who is rais­ing eight grand­chil­dren, just give up.

“The ser­vices for grand­par­ents rais­ing grand­chil­dren, it’s not there like peo­ple think it is for us,” she said.

She’s been told her hus­band makes too much to qual­ify for food stamps. She’s been given para­dox­i­cal ad­vice, like she should sell her car to pay bills, which would leave her with no ve­hi­cle to shut­tle around eight kids.

“You gotta rob Peter to pay Paul to keep your grand­chil­dren out of the sys­tem,” she said. “We need less hoops to jump through for help if we ask.”

[PHOTO BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Howard and Bev­erly Dow, top, cen­ter, pose for a photo Oct. 23 with their grand­chil­dren, top, from left, Louis, 14, Tris­ton, 10, and Day-Ja­mon, 12, bot­tom, from left, Pre­ston, 9, Lil­lian, 8, Glenn, 6, Tra-Niece, 10, and Jaelon, 13, at Stars and Stripes Park in Ok­la­homa City. The Dows are rais­ing their eight grand­chil­dren.

Glenn, 6, and Lil­lian, 8, climb on the play­ground at Stars and Stripes Park in Ok­la­homa City. The two, along with six other sib­lings, are be­ing raised by their grand­par­ents, Howard and Bev­erly Dow.

Howard Dow en­joys time in the park wth his grand­daugh­ter, Lil­lian, 8.

[PHO­TOS BY CHRIS LANDSBERGER, THE OK­LA­HOMAN]

Bev­erly and Howard Dow help their grand­daugh­ter TraNiece, 10, climb on the play­ground at Stars and Stripes Park.

Bev­erly and Howard Dow help their grand­son, Glenn, 6, climb.

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