Grandparents are more often raising their kids' kids

Ella and Maddie help prepare a meal at the home of their grandparents, Dick and Novella Johnson. The Johnsons provide full-time care for the two girls, as well as their younger brother, Benjamin, while the children's parents finish up advanced college degrees.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

A couple of goofy kids look like they're about to catapult off their homemade bunk bed in south Minneapolis.

"We're up here having a party. We have lots of stuff up here and we're playing up here in my bed. But we're not allowed to jump or stand. We might fall, and no bunk bed again."

Ella Johnson is 5, and her sister Maddie is 3.

"Should I show you something I can do?" Ella asked. "We can do gymnastic stuff on this ladder. I always have magic stuff that I can do on this bunk bed. We can do flips off of here."

Johnson family
Dick and Novella Johnson moved from Florida to Minnesota so they could help care for their grandchildren while the parents finish graduate school and a medical residency. The children are Ella, Maddie, and baby Benjamin. Their mother, Sarah is holding Benjamin.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

Ella starts talking about how they spend their time with their grandparents.

"We get in our car seats and we buckle ourselves. I'm learning how to read, so when Maddie has her nap that's when I practice reading in whisper," Ella said.

The girls' mother, Sarah Johnson, is in her fourth year of medical residency. She's burping baby Benjamin on her shoulder. She and her husband chose to have the kids' grandparents provide day care for their children for a couple of reasons.

"Day care is so expensive we really couldn't afford to do it full time, so that's actually why we ended up doing this," said Sarah Johnson. "But the side benefits have been this really close relationship that my in-laws have with the kids, and that the kids have with them."

Sarah Johnson's in-laws, Novella and Dick Johnson, moved to Minneapolis to help.

The Antells
Lee and Susan Antell are raising 8-year-old Felicia, whom they adopted after providing foster care for her.
Photo courtesy of the family

"We were happily settled in Florida, retired. Chris and Sarah were going to have a second baby, and they're both in school and they needed help," Novella said. "When we were at that point in our lives we didn't have anyone to help us. So we felt that it was something we could do, and should do, and we've certainly enjoyed it."

Ella, Maddie and Benjamin Johnson spend their days with their grandparents. It feels like an ideal situation. But often when grandparents step in to help care for the kids, it's because the parents are in crisis and can't do it.

In these situations the grandparents often end up taking custody of the kids, according to Sharon Durken, executive director of the Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association, an advocacy group that supports grandparents and other kin, like aunts and uncles, who are raising kids.

"Some of the reasons might be drugs and alcohol, poverty, a very young parent unable to parent, mental illness, deployment issues that cause grandparents to be caring for children," said Durken. "There are abandonment issues, meth is a big issue in Minnesota and a big reason why a lot of parents can't parent."

Linda Hammersten
Linda Hammersten, program manager of the GrandFamily Connection at Lutheran Social Service, helps grandparents who take on the role of raising their grandchildren.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

It's a tough time for kids when the grandparents step in, but it's also a tough time for the grandparents. They're taking care of kids while their friends may be off golfing or traveling. And they don't get to enjoy the grandparent role in the same way.

Linda Hammersten, the program manager for GrandFamily Connection at Lutheran Social Service, talks to a lot of grandparents about their sacrifices.

"They're giving up the wonderful role of being able to spoil their grandkids, and then send them back to their parents," said Hammersten. "They have to, instead, be the one who's laying down the law about needing to do your homework and pick up your clothes and your toys, etc."

"They also mourn for the children the loss of their grandparents," Hammersten continued, "because they want for those kids to have that joy of being able to be spoiled rotten and then be sent home, and that just many times doesn't happen."

Some grandparents raise a grandchild from birth. For these children, home is grandma and grandpa's, and it always has been.

"What a wonderful opportunity I have been given, to be such a big part of these girls' lives."

It's spring break for Felicia Antell, who's 8. She's with her grandfather at his office at the American Indian Opportunities Industrialization Center in Minneapolis.

"I love my grandma and grandpa," Antell said. "They help me with my homework and they do a lot of stuff with me, to help me walk with my knock-knees and help me do stuff."

Felicia Antell is on crutches because she just had surgery on her knees. Her grandfather, Lee Antell, remembers there used to be a monthly payment from the state to help pay for this kind of thing. That's when Felicia was their foster child.

"I remember it well because it was not quite enough to cover the new daycare that we needed for her. But she also received medical assistance and we also received social services from the county," Antell said.

"About a year later when we took permanent legal custody of the child, all of those benefits stopped," Antell continued. "And that's one of my gripes I guess about the system, when grandparents are raising grandchildren. Very scant resources for the children."

New legislation is being proposed in Minnesota that would provide more money and support to children who are being raised by their grandparents or other relatives.

Members of the board of the Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association: Steve Rood, Virginia Clark, and executive director Sharon Durken.
MPR Photo/Nanci Olesen

Grandma Lugene Flores could use some financial support. She's raising six granddaughters, ages 1 to 16, by herself. She's used most of her retirement savings to care for them.

"And sometimes I'm like, I don't know if I'm going to make it to the next pay day," Flores said.

Flores' daughter has been using drugs. Flores knows she'll probably be raising the girls until they're all grown. But she says she wants to do it.

Flores works a full-time job, and she manages to have dinner together with her six granddaughters most nights.

"In the evening when we are all at the table I can sit. And the baby, she mimics everything I do. I'll pretend like I'm laughing so she pretends like she's laughing," Flores said. "And I look around the table and I think, 'What a wonderful opportunity I have been given to be such a big part of these girls' lives.'"

The people at the Minnesota Kinship Caregivers Association want lawmakers to know the problems that grandparent caregivers face.

Sharon Durken says it's hard to get support, because so many people just don't think about the fact that these kinds of families exist.

"Our society still looks at family as mom, dad and children," Durken said. "And I think it's important that we re-evaluate that view we have of family, because it is so much larger and so much different than the old view."

Durken's organization hopes that schools and neighborhoods will expand their definition of family to include the many grandparents who are raising kids, so that people aren't surprised when grandpa shows up on "Doughnuts with Dad Day."