When Mary Mitchell’s two granddaughters moved in with her, she began to feel invisible. Friends stopped calling. Maybe they figured she was too busy to get out. Maybe they were right. And never mind trying to find a babysitter: something she hadn’t had to do in nearly 30 years.
One of the girls arrived with a bad toothache, but Mary’s dentist said he couldn’t see her without the child’s parents’ permission. The local elementary school told her the same thing: Sorry, we can’t enroll your granddaughters without their parents’ permission.
But their parents—Mary’s son and daughter-in-law—were 3,000 miles away. And they were in jail.
It had all happened so fast. One day, Mary, then 62, was a newly retired postal employee with plans to travel. The next, she was the invisible caregiver to two vulnerable girls, 7 and 8 years old, who had been suddenly separated from their parents.
“I got a phone call saying my son and daughter-in-law had been arrested in North Carolina,” Mary recalls. “So the next day we had the kids flown back here.”
Mary’s son and daughter-in-law were accused of selling drugs via the U.S. mail. Her son was facing up to 40 years in federal prison. (After a year in jail, he was sentenced to six years, her daughter-in-law to two.) Mary spent $25,000—money she’d saved to travel—on his legal fees. She set up a legal guardianship so that she could take her granddaughters to the dentist and doctor, and enroll them in school. They also needed beds, clothes, and school supplies. And they missed their parents. They missed their dad’s cooking. One of the girls started faking illnesses.
It was overwhelming. And Mary’s pension was stretched to the breaking point.
There are an estimated 43,000 kinship caregivers in the state of Washington, although that number is likely undercounted, according to Barb Taylor of Catholic Community Services, who coordinates the King County Kinship Collaboration. Kinship caregivers are caring for their grandkids (or nieces, nephews, or other relatives) because those children’s own parents are unable to do so. In every case, that means a story of heartbreak: death, mental or physical illness, incarceration, drug addiction.
Nationwide, 2.6 million children are being raised by grandparents or other relatives. That number has been steadily climbing. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), says that between 2010 and 2015, the number of children in kinship care rose 24 percent in her state, which has been hard hit by the opioid epidemic. With Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pennsylvania), Collins co-sponsored the Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, which President Donald Trump signed into law July 9. The law intends to create a one-stop shop of resources to support grandparents raising grandchildren.
Research shows that “there are better outcomes when a child is placed with relatives instead of strangers,” Taylor explains. When children can’t live with their parents, “staying connected to family is an important part of the healing process.”
But the stress—physical, emotional, financial—on grandparents and other kinship caregivers can be enormous, which is why support groups, along with resource “navigators” like Shannon Jones at Catholic Community Services, are so vital. Jones’ job is to listen, and to help caregivers access the support they need, such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.
“I know these grandparents didn’t ask for it, and neither did the kids,” says Jones. Two decades ago, she was a parent with a drug problem, and her own mom had to step in to raise her daughter Enjunay. Jones’ office wall is papered with photos of Enjunay’s sports career: now 24, she plays football for the Seattle Majestics.
Mary Mitchell turned to a south Seattle nonprofit called the Atlantic Street Center for advice and help. There, she found “Miss Paula, the perfect counselor,” for the girls. She also saw a flyer about a support group for kinship caregivers. At first, she wasn’t sure that was where she belonged, but the group quickly became an important part of her life, and it continued to be a mainstay for the two years that her granddaughters lived in her home. Now, she runs a similar group with more than two dozen members for the Atlantic Street Center.
Five years ago, Mark and Teru Lundsten were on their way to visit friends in California when they got the call. Mark, then 62 and retired after 27 years of commercial fishing, had just produced and directed his second short film, The Bath. Teru, then 60, was a memoir writer and teacher. They had 24 hours to pick up their 4-year-old granddaughter Jordan, or she would be placed in foster care. The Lundstens canceled their plans and drove home to Anacortes.
Mark and Teru had already once been granted custody, after Jordan told them about some of the “scary places” her mother, then addicted to methamphetamines, had taken her. When Jordan’s mom, Nina, completed treatment, Jordan was returned to her. But months later, Nina relapsed, and Mark and Teru were again asked to step in.
“As a parent, as a mother, Nina would have lost everything, had we not been around to take care of Jordan,” Mark says. “Jordan would have gone into the system had we not been there.”
Jordan is now 9 and has a baby sister, Jacy, who is 15 months old. They live with their mom—Nina has been sober for two years.
Mark and Teru see Jordan and Jacy every week. “We don’t hold back. We just flat-out adore them,” says Mark. He and Jordan recently returned from a four-day, grandpas-and-grandkids camping trip with an old friend.
On the trip, Jordan regaled the campers with stories from Mark’s childhood, including one involving a cherry-bomb and the window of his mother’s station wagon. But Mark didn’t mind. What could be sweeter than a granddaughter who remembers your stories and constantly cajoles you for more?
Meanwhile, Mary Mitchell had her own summer adventure: She took her granddaughters to the K-Con Korean pop music festival in Los Angeles. One of the two girls, loves K-pop so much she’s studying Korean. It’s all new to Mary, but she was more than willing to turn it into a grandma-and-grandkids vacation. Like Mark and Jordan’s camping trip, it was a planned adventure. And she really enjoyed that part.
Photo: Grandmothers parenting grandchildren support each other at Atlantic Street in Seattle. From the left: Pat Morris, Theresa Johnson, Linda Johnson, Lisa Moore, Reshell Wilson, Yasna Osses Roe Brumley Front: Mary Mitchell and Taneah
Ann Hedreen is a writer, filmmaker, and the author of Her Beautiful Brain, winner of a 2016 Next Generation Indie book award. Ann and her husband, Rustin Thompson, own White Noise Productions and have made more than 150 short films and five feature documentaries together, including Quick Brown Fox: an Alzheimer’s Story. Their newest film, set in Peru and inspired by Ann’s great-uncle, is Zona Intangible.
Resources for Grandparents:
Generations United (gu.org) is a national nonprofit dedicated to intergenerational collaboration, including support, education, resources, networking and advocacy for grandfamily caregivers.
The state of Washington’s Kinship Care website (dshs.wa.gov/kinshipcare) features many useful publications, including Grandparents and Relatives: Do you know about the services and supports for you and the children in your care? This pamphlet—available in several languages—provides a comprehensive list of various resources, benefits, and support services available to relatives raising children. You’ll also find resources such as free Kinship Care and Foster Parent Families Annual Passes to the Seattle Aquarium and Pacific Science Center.
In the Seattle area, the Catholic Community Services’ King County Kinship Collaboration (ccsww.org) offers links to resources, one-on-one advice, support groups and other networking opportunities. Click on “Child, Youth, and Family Services,” then “Kinship.”