Cheryl Harvey has been taking care of her seven grandsons since they were born. The 60-year-old Chicagoan is the only parent Corwin, Cameron, Christian, Cole, Kimani, Malik and Branden have known. The oldest is 18 and preparing for college. The youngest is 21 months and showing symptoms of the terrible twos.
While enduring her daughter's choice of cocaine over the children, Harvey has had to face other hardships to keep her family together. But seven years ago, she decided to adopt. "It was just such a burden lifted off me," she says. "I didn't want these children in the system. They are my legacy, and I want [it] to keep on living."
Nationwide, 2.4 million grandparents were raising their grandchildren, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the first official tally of grandparents who are primary caretakers of their kids' kids. Further, the Census Bureau reported that the number of children who are being raised by their grandparents without a parent present in the household increased in the 1990s.
The federal bureau attributes these so-called skipped-generation households to teen pregnancy and mental illness, among other social problems. The Illinois Department on Aging cites such factors as alcohol or drug abuse, incarceration or unemployment.
At least 258,000 Illinois grandparents are primary caretakers. Nearly half of them have borne that responsibility for more than five years. And more than a quarter run skipped-generation households. Yet most of these grandparent caretakers don't have legal documentation to prove it.
A grandparent advocate says cost is one of the reasons grandparents don't turn to the legal system. Another is pride. "They don't want to go to court to prove their child is an unfit parent," says Jaia Peterson Lent, director of public policy and outreach for the Washington, D.C.-based Generations United. "Often times [grandparents] hope their child will return to get their child."
Still, most grandparents who take in grandchildren do so because they're family. Linette Kinchen, an adoptive grandparent and the executive director and founder of the Grandfamilies Program of Chicago, says many are reluctant to go through the legal process. They feel they shouldn't have to adopt "because it's their blood."
Some state lawmakers have begun to recognize the choices these grandparents make — and the challenges that go with those choices. This spring, nine legislative proposals were aimed at addressing these issues. Measures were introduced to create a state program specifically for older caretakers and to raise foster care payments.
State Sen. Mattie Hunter, a Chicago Democrat, pushed two measures aimed at what she calls an "underserved population." One would have allowed children to be covered by their grandparents' insurance. Another would have provided awareness training for judges. Both measures stalled this spring, but Hunter says she'll try again because they would provide relief for older caretakers.
In fact, most don't ask for much. Though Harvey's daughter doesn't participate in her sons' lives, the grandmother says she isn't capable of dishing out hard love to the boys' mother. "I never asked her to take care of them or condemn her for having them. I thank her because it made me stronger," she says. "I've been there, done that, and I know I can do it. We're not victims anymore, we're survivors."
But when a weekend turns into weeks, grandparents encounter problems. Enrolling children in school or giving medical consent is made more difficult because, without proper paperwork, grandparents have no legal rights. And most are unaware of their legal options until they confront this reality.
Harvey says she was advised by a caseworker at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services not to adopt. "I was told it was better just to have them. But at that time, what did I know?" A few years later, a caseworker with Universal Family Connections and a court advocate in Cook County helped her through the stressful adoption process.
Most grandparents aren't even aware they can get help in sorting through their options. Groups such as the Guardianship Assistance Desk in Chicago and the Parent Place in Springfield can provide legal advocates and assistance to grandparents who can't afford lawyers.
Christi Clifton, the court advocate for the Parent Place, says she deals mostly with relative caretakers who want legal guardianship. This status grants them power to make all decisions and protects the children if the unstable parent returns. "The security that legal guardianship offers is worth more than its weight in gold."
She sees more clients in August and September, when grandparents realize a few months too late that their summer visitors have become permanent guests and need to be registered for the new school year.
While awareness of services is low, once grandparents walk in the door of a state agency, they become connected to an entire network of assistance. Barb Schwartz, coordinator of the Department on Aging's Grandparents Raising Grandchildren program, says her agency relies on these word-of-mouth referrals because the hidden population of grandparents raising grandchildren is "falling through the cracks."
Harvey says she avoided falling through the cracks by making sure the Springfield and Chicago offices of Children and Family Services were on the same page. The key, she says, is keeping detailed documentation. "Everything leads back to paper. If you don't have some type of paper trail, then [grandparents] lose out on a lot of resources for their [grand]children."
Schwartz believes the state should launch an advertising campaign and hire more caseworkers to deal with grandparents. But, she notes, the state's social service agencies weren't designed with relative caretakers in mind.
She also suggests all counties appoint court advocates to help grandparents adopt or become legal guardians.
Policies differ throughout the state. Some counties require an attorney, which can be costly for already financially strapped grandparents.
A Department of Children and Family Services program does provide some funds for legal assistance. A grandparent can receive up to $500 to pay court fees through the Extended Family Support Program. There also is help through the nonprofit Area Agencies on Aging.
However, some of their funding is tied to a federal requirement that grandparents be age 60 or older. The catch is that fewer than a third of Illinois grandparents who are raising their grandchildren meet this age requirement. "Just because the services are out there doesn't mean [everyone] qualifies."
Schwartz says legislators are making moves in the right direction. "We are getting there, but we have to pick up the speed. They need to look at the obstacles and needs and make services more accessible and effective."
Harvey says being a parent to seven boys is exhausting, but it gives her energy and pleasure. "My job is, keep them warm, fed, loved and housed."
Like all grandparents, she wants her boys to grow into educated young men. Her oldest plans to attend college this fall with his half-brother who lives in Skokie. A proposal introduced by state Rep. Lovana Jones might make this dream a reality. The Chicago Democrat's measure would create a $1,000 tuition grant for high school seniors who have a C average and live with their grandparents.
Though Harvey's daughter has not lived up to her potential, her grandsons have a chance. And that, says Harvey, is what matters to her.
Schwartz agrees. "Anybody with children knows there are no guarantees. There are no textbooks," she says.
"They make choices that [grandparents] have no control over. [And] those grandparents have to be there to pick up the pieces from their choices."
llinois Issues, April 2006