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Lost Grandchildren : Some grandparents are denied access to young members of their families. A support group is being formed.

February 13, 1992|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Unlike many grandparents, Norma and Joe Drake do not expect to receive a Valentine's Day card from their only grandchild. In fact, the Camarillo couple is not sure when they will see the 7-year-old boy again, although he lives in the same neighborhood.

When their son's marriage broke up, he moved back home with his son. So Norma, who is now 52, and Joe, 60, helped raise their grandson from the age of seven months until he was 6 years old. Then their son moved out in May, 1990. And through legal and family disputes, the Drakes were denied access to their grandchild. At great fiscal and emotional cost they have been pursuing visitation privileges through legal means since January, 1991.

The problem of denied access and "unplanned parenthood" among older people is increasingly common, experts acknowledge. For a variety of reasons, a growing number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren with or without benefit of legal custody. In some cases, the parents have died, are incarcerated or have substance abuse problems. But often the situation results from a divorce, explained Robert Beilin, a psychologist and the former director of the Ventura County Superior Court Family Relations Department.

After divorcing, adults often place their children in the care of Mom and Dad. Or adult children move back home, bringing their own children.

"But it is very difficult to be a parent to your children and a child to your own parents," said Beilin. So as soon as adults recover financially, they move out. "And sometimes they declare their own independence by saying 'you can't see the children unless I say so.' " Moreover, parents sometimes disagree with grandparents over the proper way to bring up children.

Beilin said laws in California and a few other states provide for a judge to order visitation to grandparents or stepparents when it is in the child's best interest--but only in the event of a divorce.

Camarillo psychologist Leonard Diamond, author of two books on child custody, said separation can be dangerous when children have come to know the grandparents as psychological parents. "And it is almost like a death to the grandparent who has all this emotionality invested in this child who is suddenly swept away."

Diamond has agreed to help Norma Drake establish a support group called Together United Grandparents, which will offer emotional support to grandparents who have previously been major--or the only--care givers. TUGS will also address the needs of grandparents separated geographically from their grandchildren and will act as a social network for those who are currently raising grandchildren. Drake said the group will also try to have laws changed to give grandparents more access rights and to provide social service agency and financial assistance for custodial grandparents.

"People can tell you at the moment how to cope and what you should do," she said. "But it's too difficult--it's a real loss. Even now it's difficult not to be able to pick up the phone or not have him come by."

Beilin said, "I would hope that this support group would heal the rift between grandparents and their own children so there would not be a family conflict and everyone could collaborate in raising the grandchildren."

Love songs: Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. So this weekend why not surprise your loved one with a singing Valentine? Members of the Channel Islands Clippers chapter of the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America will be your emissaries of romance. Just choose the place--home, office, hospital. For $30 a quartet will perform three songs, deliver a card and flower. This annual fund-raiser occurs Friday through Sunday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

You might also consider joining the 40-member group. "Our membership is international," London-born member Paul Digby said. "We've got two guys from England, a Dutchman and even a guy from Ojai." And there are no age limits to this hobby. The average age of the singers is between 45 and 50, with a couple of 75-year-old fellows and two members just out of high school. "As long as you've got breath to breathe, you can carry on with it," said Digby.

Consider the group's motto: "We sing that they shall speak." By sending a serenade-gram you will also help children and adults afflicted with speech problems. About 10% of the proceeds benefit the Institute of Logopedics in Wichita, Kan. It was established in 1934 with the philosophy that a person's development and potential depend largely on the ability to communicate. The institute provides speech therapy to correct stuttering and teaches older stroke victims how to speak again. To join the quartet society, or to order a singing Valentine, call (805) 659-4048.

* FYI

To reach Together United Grandparents Support, call (805) 388-1929. For information on this subject or help in starting a Grandparents As Parents group, contact Sylvie de Toledo, Psychiatric Clinic for Youth, 2801 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach 90801, (310) 595-3151.

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