Advertisement

COVER STORY : Joan and Jerry McMillin thought their child-raising days were done. But when their daughter was slain, leaving two grandchildren, the McMillins had to become. . . : Twice the Parents

November 17, 1994|SUSAN PATERNO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like a lot of people in their late 50s and early 60s, Joan and Jerry McMillin had a retirement plan: Travel the country in a camper, grow old with friends, put some money aside for their grandchildren's education.

Six years ago, those plans evaporated when their daughter was stabbed to death by her husband in front of their two children in an Orange County motel room.

Today, the McMillins are parents again, raising grandchildren George, 11 and Audrey, 10, in a white bungalow in Bellflower after a five-year custody battle that exhausted their life savings and left them in debt.

"Neither of us wanted to do this," Joan McMillin said. "We had a beautiful picture in front of us that we were moving toward. But the glass broke and the picture was destroyed."

The McMillins are among a growing number of grandparents thrust into the job of raising children for a second time, missing out on long-awaited retirements. According to census data, in 1990 three times as many grandparents were raising their grandchildren as in 1980.

What happened to the McMillins was an extreme case; more often, grandparents assume child-rearing roles while their own children deal with drug addictions, spousal abuse, divorce or financial pressures that limit the time they can devote to parenting.

Dozens of support groups have formed throughout the United States to help grandparents such as the McMillins cope with the financial, physical and emotional demands of raising children. One of the country's first groups--Grandparents as Parents--started in Long Beach eight years ago.

The McMillins say they found kinship and solace at the weekly meetings. The organization brought in experts in family law, the social welfare bureaucracy and financial matters to give grandparents advice. At picnics, holiday parties and counseling sessions, grandparent members shared information--from cooking tips and child-rearing strategies to horror stories about battling their own children for custody of the grandchildren.

The McMillins met a retired Los Angeles nurse with colon cancer who is raising five grandchildren, all born addicted to drugs. They met a couple from Lakewood who have been battling for custody of an 8-year-old grandson abandoned at birth by his drug-addicted mother. Another member of the group, a single grandmother, had won custody of her grandson from his drug-addicted, abusive mother, only to learn that the boy's father, who is in prison for attempted murder, might gain custody when he is released in a couple of years.

*

Grandparents also learn to cope with guilt stemming from their own children's problems.

"We learned we weren't bad parents, and we're not failures," McMillin said. "Some of the guilt was lifted and we could go on."

Joan McMillin, 58, a beautician, appears to be flourishing in her role as mom. On a recent afternoon, the aroma of chicken soup wafts from the kitchen where she is standing in front of a pot, stirring. Jerry McMillin, 60, a former refrigerator repairman, sits in an armchair in the living room, overseeing George Gallagher Jr. and Audrey Gallagher as they do math homework.

On the living room wall is a portrait of their mother, Barbara. She looks radiant, youthful, her head cocked, her smile self-assured.

The picture is deceiving, though. Barbara's life was never as easy as the photograph suggests.

Barbara was the youngest of Joan McMillin's seven children. When Barbara was still a baby, McMillin left her abusive first husband in Massachusetts, packed the kids in the car and drove to California. She moved to Bellflower in 1970, working at odd jobs to keep food on the table. She went back to school but continued to work nights and weekends. She often had to leave Barbara in the care of the older children. Joan met Jerry, a divorced father of three grown children, in the late 1970s. They married a few years later.

*

Barbara met George Gallagher when she was 14. He was 20, with the looks of a TV anchor, and had a well-paying aerospace factory job. Almost immediately, Barbara became pregnant. In 1983, at age 17, she was married and the mother of two children.

During the marriage, George Gallagher drank, smoked marijuana and beat Barbara, according to Joan and Jerry McMillin. The two children lived on and off with their grandparents.

In February, 1986, Barbara and George divorced and the court gave custody of the children to Barbara. But Barbara kept returning to George, despite the pleas of Joan and Jerry McMillin to leave him for good.

Barbara exhibited the classic symptoms of a battered woman, said Sylvie de Toledo, a licensed clinical social worker who founded Grandparents as Parents in Long Beach.

"Somehow the man still has a lot of power and control," de Toledo said. "When there are children involved, and you're dependent on an abusive man emotionally and financially, it's very hard to break away because you're wondering how you're going to survive."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|