Grandparents face legal issues, financial strain when raising grandchildren

Apr 23, 2014

R. Diane Hall, AARP Associate State Director of Community Outreach, discusses AARP's Benefit Quicklink Program at the Northland Grandfamilies support group meeting on Feb 12.
Credit MU Extension Center

On April 24, the family resource organization Parentlink will hold a special conference in Jefferson City for Grandparents raising grandchildren in the state of Missouri. The free event will provide Seniors with resources, practical information as well as support to help them meet the significant financial and legal challenges they face. But events like this one happen only occasionally - more sustained outreach programs for these Grandparents are harder to find. Diana Milne runs the "Northland Grandfamilies" program, part of the MU Extension Center. It's the only program specifically targeting grandparents and aunts and uncles who are raising children in the greater Kansas City area.

What are some of the things they’re struggling with?

Some of these grandparents and aunts and uncles have legal custody or guardianship, some of them have only a power of attorney, and some of them don’t even have that. And so depending on how flexible the school district is they may or may not have problems getting the children enrolled in school. Some of the grandparents are receiving child support from a parent, most of them are not. So it’s just a very wide variety of circumstances but I can tell you that legal issues and financial hardship are pretty much at the top of the list for the majority of the grandparents.

It seems like a lot of these seniors were just not expecting to be a parent again. Do you generally see a lot of confusion and being overwhelmed with the responsibility or are they generally ready to take care of their grandchild?

Many of them are kind of depressed about it, and grieving. The fact that, you know, I’m trying to be the parent and that means I can’t really be the grandparent anymore. And financially, things that maybe I might have done with the grandkids on special occasions, I don’t have the finances now to do that because they’re with me every day. And then there’s the added dilemma that these may not be the only grandchildren that they have.

More and more we see grandparents taking on the role of parent in families across the United States but do you think that there’s anything unique about the way this is playing out in Missouri?

I don’t know about unique, but one thing we’re seeing as far as why, there seems to be a recurring theme. Substance abuse, whether that’s drugs or alcohol or both, untreated mental illnesses, unemployed status and/or underemployment, incarceration. Those seem to be the reasons that the children end up in the grandparents’ home. It’s not that the grandparents have coerced the parents into allowing them to raise the children. In some cases the children were literally dropped off and never picked up. And that sounds kind of bizarre but that has happened in several of the cases that we’ve worked with.

One thing I thought of if these grandparents don’t have power of attorney or legal guardianship over these children then they’re having to probably raise them on their fixed social security income, and may not even qualify for health insurance because maybe they fall in the gap.

This is why it’s so important to get reform with guardianship and custody and also just maybe assisting them with legal fees. A lot of the grandparents have to rely on a legal aid attorney to help guide them through the custody process and a few of our grandparents have actually gone through the adoption process. And it’s been very expensive and very lengthy. And of course it’s even more complicated if one or both of the biological parents are contesting that action.

What do you suggest to somebody who doesn’t live in Platt county or Clay county. Where do they go for these resources?

If they have a local chapter of AARP, maybe talking with family services, your school district and school counselors. I know that rural communities are somewhat limited in the resources they have. Area Agencies on Aging would be a good starting point.