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COVER STORY : The Grandparent Trap : More Find Themselves Raising a Second Family


It was finally Madeline Trice's time to kick back and enjoy her retirement years.

For eight years, she had cared for her ailing mother, who died in 1989. A few months later, she had leg surgery. After a three-month recovery, Trice could finally plan those Caribbean cruises and trips to Canada and Alaska with her husband, Tom.

But now, three years later, the Athens resident is raising her 5-year-old great-grandson because his mother is a drug addict. The farthest the 72-year-old retired nurse has gone is to the Circus Circus Hotel in Las Vegas with the youngster in tow.

With heartbreaking frequency, growing numbers of grandparents--and great-grandparents--are being thrust back into parenthood, left to care for youngsters because of a parent's substance abuse, incarceration, poverty, death or abandonment of a child.

Although these problems hit all ethnic and racial communities, their effects are perhaps felt most strongly among African-American grandmothers.

Nationwide, 12% of African-American children live with their grandparents, compared to 6% of Latino children and 3% of Anglo children, according to 1990 U.S. Census figures. Less than 1% of Asian-American children live with grandparents, although social service workers suspect that figure may be artificially low because of underreporting.

The numbers are more extreme in Los Angeles County, where 58% of the children placed with relatives--in most cases, grandparents--are African-American, 24% are Latino and 17% are Anglo, according to the county Department of Children's Services. (No breakdown is available for Asian-Americans.)

In Central Los Angeles, the burden has fallen especially hard on African-American grandmothers. According to county officials, about 85% of the grandparents involved in support groups for relatives raising children or receiving assistance from the Department of Children's Services are African-American.

They are women like Mary Davison, 57, who has been a surrogate parent to three children since 1989 because of their mother's drug addiction. Although Davison's son fathered only one of the children, Davison agreed to raise all three.

There is also Lois Freeman, who at 49 is raising two of her daughter's five children while the 26-year-old mother is in alcoholism-recovery treatment. The other two children live with Freeman's 69-year-old mother, Sally Howlett, of Watts. The youngest child is with his mother at a rehabilitation center.

Many African-American grandmothers who have taken on the burden of caring for their grandchildren feel obliged to preserve their families and save the children from being placed with non-relatives and entangled in the foster-care system.

"Maybe it's the black family culture from the South," said Ann Miller, 68, a grandmother and member of the Assn. of African-American Grandmothers. "You step in and you try to keep your child within the family instead of being placed (in a foster home). This is customary and something we do willingly."

In the African-American community, grandparents caring for grandchildren in extended families is not new or unusual--they have been doing so for centuries, as far back as the early days of slavery.

What has changed in the last 10 years is the absenteeism of parents stemming from increased substance abuse and a rise in teen-age pregnancies, said Lenora Poe of Oakland, a psychologist and author of "Black Grandparents As Parents."

Most of the black grandparents who rear the children are women, most of whom are widows or had been single mothers, said Poe. Even in two-grandparent households, the women generally are the primary caretakers, she said.

Charlotte Martin willingly cared for her daughter Gail's first child in 1973 to relieve the teen-age mother of the burden. A single mother who raised nine children in Jordan Downs in the 1950s and '60s, Martin hoped her daughter would finish high school and find a job.

Instead, by 1984, Gail had five children and a cocaine addiction. Two years later, all five children had ended up in Martin's home, where two of her sons also lived.

Several of Martin's other children chide her for what she is doing.

"They suggest I put (the grandchildren) in a foster home, but I don't want to do that. Maybe they might be better off there, but I can't do that," said Martin, who has indefinitely postponed her retirement from the Watts YWCA, where she has worked for 18 years.

Asked why she wouldn't place the children in foster care, a scowl transformed Martin's face as if the answer was all too obvious. "Because they're family."

That commitment led Martin to take money she inherited from her mother to buy a house in 1988 so that her grandchildren--particularly her two grandsons--would not have to live in the projects. "I did that because of them. I didn't want to buy the house," she said.

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