Even at age 70, there’s no leisurely retirement for Rita Hathorne. The Baton Rouge grandmother is too busy parenting four children.
As if taking in her own daughter’s 11-year-old and 10-year-old weren’t enough, she also cares for a 19-month-old and a 10-week-old, the children of her fiance’s daughter.
Putting them in foster care or up for adoption is not an option.
“These kids are family,” Hathorne said. “My family does not go where they don’t know people.”
Stories such as Hathorne’s are familiar ones for Dorothy “Dot” Thibodeaux, 75, who found herself unexpectedly raising her 12-year-old grandson 20 years ago. As hard as she looked, Thibodeaux couldn’t find any help, so she and Danna Spayde co-founded Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. For two decades the support group has worked to help those who find themselves suddenly responsible for what AARP calls “grandfamilies.”
“People need to know they are not alone — there is help and camaraderie and support — we support each other,” Thibodeaux said. “Some people call me just to talk to feel better.”
AARP, based on its own surveys and U.S. Census data, watches the number of such families.
Nationwide, 5.8 million children are living in the homes of more than 2.5 million grandparents with nearly 1 million of those children in homes where neither parent is present. In Louisiana, 72,555 Louisiana children live in homes with grandparents who are responsible for them and 26,708 of the children have no parents present in the home at all, according to AARP.
These parenting-again grandparents face a range of challenges from limited finances and personal energy to children confused about why their parents aren’t there to legal and public assistance systems that can seem intimidating or disinterested in helping.
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren seeks to address those and other issues, meeting at 10 a.m. the fourth Thursday of each month at Family Road of Greater Baton Rouge, 323 East Airport Ave.
“We try to bring in specialists to enlighten the grandparents as to what they might do and where they can find help,” Thibodeaux said. “We have attorneys come talk to us, because there are a lot of legal issues we don’t all understand.”
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren partners with other organizations when it can, including nursing classes at LSU. A recent conference the organization held drew 175 people.
“A lot of people would never have dreamed they would be in this situation,” Thibodeaux said.
“We get calls from as far away as Texas asking for more information and services there we might know of.”
When the support organization first began, she said, many of the issues faced dealt with the sudden death of parents, but over the years, “we’ve seen an increase in the use of drugs and alcohol and the rates of incarceration of parents.”
Hathorne explained how the baby she began caring for recently was born addicted to drugs and cries all night.
“Not all these children are well children,” Thibodeaux said. “Some have autism, multiple sclerosis, attention deficit disorders, all sorts of things.”
She estimated that 700 to 800 people have been involved with Grandparents Raising Grandchildren through the years. Monthly meetings typically draw from 18 to 25.
During a recent gathering at Family Road, Thibodeaux and Hathorne were joined by Linda Cosey, Winona LeJeune and Myra Engrum.
Cosey, 59, who is rearing her two grandchildren, ages 13 and 4, said her state retirement disqualifies her from social services and other family member don’t help consistently.
“Their mother don’t do anything,” Cosey said. “The dads pay child support when they feel like it.”
Cosey receives some support from her church, New Hope Missionary Baptist, which was especially helpful last year when her home burned down and she and the children lived in one room at her own elderly mother’s home for 10 months.
“The other grandparents don’t help,” Cosey said. “With insurance and everything, we have barely enough to live on.”
For 11 years, LeJeune, 64, who is disabled from a near-fatal bout with West Nile virus, has been caring for her two grandsons, ages 13 and 14. She also does not qualify for any social services and without support from her church, Healing Place, her life would be even harder than it is, she said.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve slept in the car at a ballpark, because I just couldn’t go another step,” LeJeune said. “Sometimes I have to be honest with my boys and tell them their friends can’t come over because we don’t have any extra food.”
Hurricane Katrina wiped out Engrum’s New Orleans home and her job and then, following the birth of her grandson, her daughter died. “I brought him home from the hospital,” Engrum, 58, said.
Engrum now lives in Baton Rouge, works full time and cares for her 7-year-old grandson.
“Sometimes you don’t see a way through the situation, but you keep praying about it and keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Engrum said.
Frustration over access to government services is a common experience among her support group members, Thibodeaux said.
“Your assets count against you, your age counts against you, your health counts against you,” she said. “The food stamps don’t follow the children, they follow the mothers.”
The paperwork for enrollment in schools, insurance or even taxes becomes complicated, Thibodeaux said. Some grandparents fear reprisal from “deadbeat dads” or addicted mothers who may want the kids back to get more social services for themselves.
Some of the grandparents go through the court system to adopt their grandchildren, but in Engrum’s case, due to the loss of documentation in Katrina, it took five years.
Many grandparents do not want to adopt their grandchildren, Thibodeaux said, because it is expensive and complicated.
Many also do not want to become foster parents because that is also complicated by state regulations.
“The part that is so frustrating is if the grandparents wouldn’t step up to the plate the grandchildren would be the government’s total responsibility,” LeJeune said. “We need some assistance from somewhere.”
The women said state bureaucracy isn’t “grandparent-friendly.”
“When we go in there to fill out forms, they make us feel like we are begging or cheating,” Hathorne said.
And try as they might, grandparents can’t replace parents, and grandmothers especially can’t replace fathers, the women said.
“Some of these kids have ADD and anger, can’t understand why their parents don’t love them or live with them,” Hathorne said. “I’m 70 years old. I can’t take my grandson hunting or camping.”
“My grandchildren feel abandoned,” Cosey said. “My granddaughter has to go to counseling because it’s hard for her sometimes.”
Grandparents Raising Grandchildren can’t solve all of the problems, but Thibodeaux said she’s glad the organization can be there to offer help.
“The reason we have these support groups is trying to help each other figure out what can you possibly do,” LeJeune said. “To be honest, after 20 years the government is not going to be the answer. It’s gonna have to come from churches, families and neighborhoods.”