TWIN FALLS — You’ve heard it before: It takes a village to raise a child.

But for today's children, the village — that safe community of adult siblings, aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors who once looked out for each other’s children — rarely exists in modern society.

And for children with absentee parents — absent for whatever reason — the legal system has taken over where traditionally families stepped in.

Legally, grandparents don’t have natural rights to their grandchildren. They must go through the same process as foster parents to gain guardianship or custody of their grandchildren.

And the process can be heart-wrenching.

A new group of “kinship care” advocates in the Magic Valley is uniting for change — for changes in the law, in society’s attitudes and in family culture.

In 2012, 4.2 million households in the U.S. contained both grandparents and grandchildren younger than 18. Grandparents were the principal caregivers in two-thirds of those households.

It's a situation that strains resources and depletes nest eggs. Children who live in grandparent-maintained households, the U.S. Census Bureau reports, are more likely to be poor than those who live in parent-maintained households.

But these grandparents wouldn't leave these children to anyone else.

In their shoes

Imagine you and your spouse are retired.

Your granddaughter gets pregnant in high school and has a baby girl. She goes back to school for a GED but can't keep her life together.

You file for custody of your great-granddaughter and get it, with the father's blessing. You wish your granddaughter could fill the mother role, but for now this is the best situation for little Kambree.

Or ...

Your grandchildren’s mother has been out of the picture for years.

One day your son leaves his two children with you and doesn’t come back. You raise them as your own, and your debt grows as you try to provide for the three of you. You give up your home and move into a tiny house to cut expenses. You take every part-time job offered, but that leaves you with little time for your new family.

Then your grandchildren decide they want to move back into their father’s home.

You are emotionally and financially devastated.

Or ...

Your daughter Sami gives birth to three beautiful babies. She never marries their father.

Sami has an addiction; the state takes custody of your grandchildren and puts them in foster care.

You file for custody to give your grandchildren security and stability within your family. But the judge grants custody to the children's father, who, by now, has married another woman, had another child and divorced. He is now in a relationship with a woman with three children and works the night shift to support the seven children in his life.

His ex-wife takes care of your grandchildren when he's working.

Not in my family

Think not? Those are the stories of real Magic Valley people who raised their own families and now are raising second families.

"You can look in every family and find someone who has lost their way," said Shawna Wasko, contract manager with the Office on Aging at the College of Southern Idaho.

"It can happen to anyone," said Myril Houk, who helps raise her daughter Sami's three children, Krystena, 8, Taylee, 7, and Trevor, 18 months.

Only one-third of children in the U.S. live with both parents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

At least 10 percent live with one or more grandparents, compared with only 3 percent in 1970. Census reports say the increase is due to high rates of divorce and teen pregnancy, and increases in drug usage and incarceration.

Sami, addicted to methamphetamine, has been in and out of jail and is probably homeless.

Sami's children are not included in the 10 percent living in kinship-care units, skip-generational families or grandfamilies, as they're called. The children live with Houk only two weekends a month in her modest farmhouse outside Hazelton. The older two do chores and keep an eye on 100 head of sheep, herding dogs and farm cats.

It's the one stable environment in their lives, Houk said.

"I like it here," said Krystena, who attends Harrison Elementary School in Twin Falls. "I want to live here."

The children's primary residence is in Twin Falls with their father, who is responsible — at least partially — for four other children.

Their father works the night shift at Chobani, then "sleeps all day," Houk said. "The kids have been raising themselves."

Their father does his best, said Rachelle Lancaster, Houk's younger daughter, but they deserve better.

"He's a good father and he's always been around," she said. "He has a lot of help from his ex and his family, but it's overwhelming to be a single parent."

Houk worries about her grandchildren, especially Krystena. Children need more than shoes on their feet and roofs over their heads.

"They need relatives to inspire them to lead a productive life," Houk said. "Krystena's teacher said she can definitely tell a difference in her when she comes back from my house."

United grandparents

Frustrated by her grandchildren's situation and seeing others in similar dilemmas, Houk began mulling ideas.

She'd thought about starting an advocate group for some time now, Lancaster said. In September, Houk asked Lancaster to be on a steering committee to form a new nonprofit, Grandparents United for Change.

Both know firsthand what obstacles grandparents face when trying to keep their grandchildren out of foster care.

"I was mostly surprised by the (child-custody) laws," Houk said. As a grandparent, "you can't just take the kids and raise them as so many families did."

Lancaster said it's frustrating when a family has the ability and desire to care for kids but faces legal obstacles.

"I believe (families) should have the first right to take care of them," she said.

A few generations ago, a situation such as Sami’s would have been handled by the family, Houk said. “Now once you get in the system, you can’t get out.”

While it's safe to say that most grandparents want the best lives for their grandchildren, few would know where to start if their grandchildren were suddenly handed to them.

Many who end up raising their grandchildren end up on welfare, Houk said.

“Welfare is OK in an emergency, but it isn’t OK when it becomes a lifestyle,” she said. “The system teaches the wrong standard. It fosters dependence.”

Houk hopes Grandparents United for Change will become a clearinghouse to help others navigate the legal and social aspects of guardianship.

Families need a place where they can get all the information and support they need — counseling, legal assistance, financial help and more.

"We would like to be that place," Houk said. "We want to be able to take them by the hand and walk them through this process."

Guardianship "is quite a burden on grandparents," said Twin Falls County Coroner Gene Turley. "They set up their retirement for themselves then find they need a part-time job to raise their grandkids."

Turley is one of five or six Magic Valley residents planning to sit on Grandparents United's board of directors. He isn't raising any grandchildren, but he had two aunts who raised theirs.

"In a perfect world, grandparents should get to spoil their grandchildren, then send them home," Turley said. "They shouldn't have to be the disciplinarians."

Turley and others want to change society's attitudes toward children who are raised by family members other than their parents.

"There is a stigma — even within families," Wasko said.

Real-life issues that take children from their parents — or parents from their children — have multiplied over the decades. While parental substance abuse is the primary reason Magic Valley children end up with their grandparents, Turley said, others include mental illness, financial instability, military deployment and death.

Society as a whole is uninformed, Wasko said, about grandparents and the children they raise.

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"The last thing they need is society looking down on them."

'Admirable' sacrifice

A Twin Falls attorney who specializes in child custody laws says most grandparents who volunteer to raise their grandchildren are doing the right thing.

"It's admirable," said Patricia Migliuri, attorney with Nicholson Migliuri Rodriguez PLLC.

"For whatever reason, when neither parent can support the child or the child is in an unstable home environment," grandparents can ask for guardianship, Migliuri said. "It's not an uncommon situation, but we do see it more frequently these days."

Grandparents seeking guardianship is the most common legal proceeding in child-custody cases, Migliuri said. Guardianship statutes allow steps for grandparents — or another family member — to have rights to make decisions and provide care for the child.

"It's a better alternative to fostering," she said. "These kids need the stability of knowing where they are going to live and who is going to take care of them."

Parenting grandchildren is "the hardest and most rewarding thing you can do," Migliuri said.

No matter what, kids are tied at the heart to family, said Lora Ohlensehlen, a Twin Falls therapist who specializes in family trauma.

That's something that's missing in foster care, she said. "It's better for a child's mental health if a family member claims them."

In her practice working with families in trauma, Ohlensehlen has seen children get emotionally stuck from stress. Children benefit from having regular schedules, predictable meal times and other facets of a stable family that grandparents can provide.

"They don't grow and develop emotionally when they are under stress," she said.

But these grandparents "are giving them a new definition of family: Families are kind and caring, and they are dependable.

"Kids can grow emotionally with that."

Often, family members have an informal arrangement — such as Houk's — to help raise the kids.

"We as a family are blessed to help raise my youngest daughter's children," Houk said.

Sometimes it works out; sometimes it doesn't.

For one Twin Falls woman, her son's abandonment of his children upended her life. After she made tremendous sacrifices for her grandchildren, the two returned to their father.

She was devastated.

After agreeing to share her story with the Times-News, she backed out. Her situation with her family, she said, was too fragile.

A success story

Houk, who spoke to the Twin Falls County Republican Central Committee this month about making child-custody laws more family-friendly, would like to see more success stories — like Howard and Marion Sullivan's.

The Sullivans, in their early 70s, have "pretty much" raised Kambree, their 4-year-old great-granddaughter, Marion said.

Three years ago, the Sullivans' 19-year-old granddaughter was out of work and couch-surfing with her infant daughter.

"I offered her and the baby a home," she said.

The Sullivans hired an attorney when their granddaughter failed to hold up her end of the arrangement. A judge gave them full custody of Kambree.

"I have a soft heart for children," Marion said. "It hurts me to see what some of these kids go through."

Kambree has a large extended family, including her grandfather, great-aunt and cousins in Twin Falls. Her mother gets to see her four hours each month.

"It's a healthy relationship," Marion said. "Kambree loves to see her mom — and I want her mom in Kambree's life — but I'm not convinced she's ready to get Kambree back."

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