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SANDY BANKS

Raising Their Children's Children and Wondering What Went Wrong the First Time

August 13, 2000|SANDY BANKS

Gwen Bartholomew was just getting her new business--a supper club in New Orleans--off the ground when the phone call came that brought her back to Los Angeles: Her daughter's boyfriend had been arrested for domestic abuse and social workers had taken their three kids. If Grandma couldn't come for them, they'd wind up in foster homes.

She packed a bag--"enough clothes for four days"--and jumped on a plane. "I figured I'd get them and bring them back home [to New Orleans], keep them for a few months or whatever, long enough for my daughter to get her life together."

Five years later, she's stopped waiting for her daughter to recover and she's still raising the kids--four of them now, ages 3 to 10.

But it is not just the rigors of motherhood that drain her. At 53, she is still full of vigor, with a raspy voice, a pixie haircut and a booming laugh that bounces off the walls of her North Hollywood home, over the din of boisterous kids at play.

It is also the struggle to make peace with this new life . . . to navigate its bureaucratic maze, to keep her footing on its rocky emotional terrain.

"That's a difficult thing for all of us, to cut that umbilical cord and say to our daughters, 'I've given you every chance in the world, the court system has given you every chance in the world. Now your needs no longer matter to me. I've got to do what's right for your kids.' "

Every day, in Southern California and across the nation, weary grandmothers file into courtrooms and listen to a litany of failings--drug abuse, prostitution, violence, neglect--that have rendered their children unfit to parent.

Some are there because they have turned on their children by summoning police or social workers because they could no longer stomach the plight of their grandchildren. Others come reluctantly, backed into a corner by circumstance, torn by competing loyalties.

This second pass at parenthood comes with its own set of doubts: If I failed so miserably with my own child, will I do any better this time around?

"You wonder," admits Bartholomew. "And the system treats you like you're guilty because your daughter is a bad mother. The mind-set seems to be that this is your fault. What's that adage: The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

She's gone through years of soul-searching, watching her daughter tumble from problem to problem, flit in and out of the children's lives. "I was not Suzy Homemaker . . . sitting there with baked cookies every day, but I certainly was not an abusive parent," Bartholomew said. "If anything, I was guilty of spoiling her, with her being an only child. But I know that I did the best that I could."

Now she's come to the hard realization that taking in your grandchildren can mean locking out your child.

*

There are more than 4 million children in this country being raised by relatives--750,000 in California alone--because one or both of their parents are on drugs, in jail, lost to the streets or otherwise unavailable. And their ranks are growing rapidly. The number of children in grandparents' care rose by 44% from 1980 to 1990, and another 25% in the past 10 years, according to census figures. This year's census is expected to show an even bigger increase.

In big cities like Los Angeles, grandparents are the grease that makes the wheels of the foster care system turn. More than 60% of children taken from abusive and neglectful parents here are placed with relatives, most often grandmothers.

Yet grandparents say the system does little to recognize their special needs--the unique emotional, financial and physical burdens that make it hard for them to raise their children's kids. "Foster parents get training, information, they go into this with their eyes wide open," Bartholomew said. "A grandma just gets a call in the middle of the night . . . a social worker shows up and hands you a baby."

Three-quarters of the children in grandparents' care are the children of drug addicts, and many are handicapped by their mother's drug use or traumatized by years of chaos and abuse.

"People don't understand what these grandparents are dealing with. They say: 'In my family, we always took care of our kids.' But these are different kids, and these families are not prepared for that," explained Lillian Johnson, who heads kinship support services at San Francisco's Edgewood Center for Children and Families.

Earlier this month, Edgewood and Children's Institute International of Los Angeles hosted a three-day conference on kinship care. It was a chance for the grandmothers to get a line on the services and advice they need. But more than that, it was an opportunity to share their stories with other women who understand the mixed bag of joy, sorrow and frustration that accompanies raising your children's kids.

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