WMU News

Grants to help ease plight of grandparents, children in Kent County

Sept. 16, 1999

KALAMAZOO -- There's a knock on the door.

In the time it takes to answer that knock, some grandparents are finding that they have become parents of young children again.

That might not be a common experience for most grandparents, but it's a scenario that is being played out in rapidly increasing numbers as more and more grandparents are being forced to parent their grandchildren. Researchers at Western Michigan University are working to develop ways to ease the transition back to full-time parenthood.

"Sometimes it happens in the middle of the night with very little warning," says Dr. Linda Dannison, chairperson of WMU's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and developer of a curriculum for grandparent support groups. "Other times there may be many messages that this is happening."

The trend has raised a host of troubling problems for both grandparents and grandchildren alike. But a new program being launched in Kent County is providing help to both urban and rural county residents being impacted by it.

The pilot program is coordinated by WMU's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences and Department of Teaching, Learning and Leadership with the help of $72,000 in grants from the Dyer-Ives Foundation and the Frey Foundation, which are both located in Kent County. The program will offer services at an urban Kent County Head Start site and a rural preschool site.

The new program is taking a holistic approach to the problem and will involve custodial grandparents, grandchildren and early childhood educators in a comprehensive service delivery model that emphasizes resource development. A wide range of important issues will be tackled, including managing personal well-being and finances, school and community relationships, parenting skills and legal concerns.

"Economics is a big issue," Dannison says. "Custodial grandparents' incomes may not be suitable for raising grandchildren. They may find that they're isolated, that they're the only one in their group that has a toddler or a teen-ager that they're parenting. They may find that there are political issues going on in the family.

"There are issues on the job; it may be harder to provide health care for children or get time off for health care. Basically, we just don't support custodial grandparents the way we do first-time parents."

Children also will be a big part of the program's focus, Dannison says.

Program researchers have identified five themes common in grandparented children's lives: grief and loss, guilt, fear, embarrassment and anger. Four-year-old children will participate in specifically designed interactions focusing on the identified themes. Additionally, early childhood personnel will participate in professional training to work more effectively with grandparent-headed families.

Evidence of the sharp rise in the number of custodial grandparents is well documented. Since 1990, the number of children living in grandparent-headed households with no biological parent present has increased 66 percent, according to the Children's Defense Fund. The trend affects more than two million children and 10 percent of all U.S. families.

The rise in grandparent-headed families is fueled by several issues, among them the "four Ds": drugs, divorce, desertion and death. Others include the high rates of adolescent pregnancy and incarceration, mental illness and an increase in families affected by AIDS.

Dannison has been involved in the issue of custodial grandparents for several years and designed a curriculum for grandparent support groups that now is in its fourth printing. The guide is available to support groups nationwide.

"Grandparents need to be nurtured, just like first-time parents," Dannison says. "I think we need to think about how as a society we can all be useful in helping grandparents more effectively parent their adult children's children."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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