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A grandmother's work

Denise Peace and other New York women raising their children's children have another family of sorts to lean on.

November 22, 2012|Tina Susman
  • Denise Peace is raising five grandchildren, ages 2 to 17. Their mother, her daughter, was killed by gun violence last year in Brooklyn.
Denise Peace is raising five grandchildren, ages 2 to 17. Their mother,… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — Each day at 5 a.m., Denise Peace rises and begins the task of waking and feeding five grandchildren, ages 2 to 17, and shepherding them out the door of her cramped but miraculously neat apartment in Brooklyn.

The 5-year-old needs to be on his school bus by 6:26. The eldest has to catch a 7 a.m. train. The 4-year-old must be walked to school in time for the 8:10 bell. The 2-year-old plays while Peace prepares the 3-year-old for day care. In the early afternoon, she reverses the drill, fetching children from bus stops and schools and getting them home for dinner, baths and bed. Peace collapses about 9 p.m.

"Then I just start all over again," the 56-year-old said of the moment when her alarm sounds the next morning.

It's a routine that changes once a month, when Peace travels to a Brooklyn church and meets with dozens of other grandmothers -- and some great-grandmothers -- in similar situations. All have been catapulted back into full-time parenting by the sudden losses of their own children. All have been brought together by the New York Police Department and local clergy for a chance to swap stories, compare legal and parenting advice, cry on a friendly shoulder, pray and simply let off steam.

"It comforts you. It lets you know you're not alone in this," said Peace, who learned of the close-knit group called Grandmothers LOV -- for Love Over Violence -- as she searched for programs last year to help women like herself. "They have your back. It's like another family."

It's a family that is growing. According to the 2010 census, the number of grandparents who are primary caregivers to grandchildren has risen 12.8% since 2000, from about 2.4 million to more than 2.7 million. Between 1990 and 2000, census figures indicate that the number of U.S. children being raised by grandparents rose 30%. And the Annie E. Casey Foundation, which studies children's issues, says that in 1970, 3.2% of U.S. children lived in grandparent-run households; by 1997, it was 5.5%.

With today's grandparents -- particularly grandmothers -- living longer and often staying healthier, they are more likely to be able to step in if parents die or are unable to raise their children because of illness, incarceration, drug abuse or other problems. The recession is believed to have played a role in the increase, with grandparents more apt than many parents to have the financial stability needed to raise children, said Robert Geen, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's family services policy director.

"I think there is a concern that the tough economic environment is putting pressure on parents -- that it is simply overwhelming them," Geen said. "The big concern is that our social services system is completely oriented toward a nuclear family, so support available to grandparents is fairly lacking."

Joanne Jaffe, the housing chief for the New York Police Department, had noticed how many grandmothers were becoming the anchor for disjointed families. LOV, which first met in September 2010, evolved from her observations, and from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly's work with Brooklyn clergy to combat youth violence.

Jaffe focused on grandmothers -- not grandfathers -- for several reasons. Among them: far more grandmothers than grandfathers are thrust into parenting roles because they often have more time, experience and willingness than men of their generation to rear their children's children. Jaffe wanted to empower those women to become leaders in combating violence and other problems in their communities.

"It's a giant family therapy group," Jaffe said recently as LOV members trickled into the Mt. Sion Baptist Church, on a busy corner near a loud highway overpass. There were women leaning on walkers and on canes, and at least one in a wheelchair. Another came with a squirming toddler in her arms.

There were squeals of joy and cries of "Welcome back!" as the women who had not seen each other in eight weeks -- the group had taken a summer hiatus -- huddled like giddy teenagers. For the next 21/2 hours, with their grandchildren and great-grandchildren in day care, at school, or being cared for by baby-sitters or other family members, they could focus on themselves and one another.

Inez Rodriguez said she had canceled hip and knee replacement surgery to come to the gathering. Daphne Georgalas lamented the challenge of resting babies on her tired shoulders. "I thought I was done -- and lo and behold I have little Princess Emily now," she said of her infant granddaughter.

Jaffe, whose NYPD uniform was in sharp contrast to the colorful dresses and hats worn by many of the grandmothers, made a point not to sound too cheery as she greeted the crowd. Instead, she alluded to the city's bloody summer, when shootings left several children and teenagers dead and wounded in the very neighborhoods that many of the grandmothers call home, and hope to change by keeping their own grandkids out of trouble.

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