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Grant helps establish resource centers for grandparents

May 18, 2006

KALAMAZOO--Two Western Michigan University experts on kinship care will be setting up resource centers for custodial grandparents around the nation.

Drs. Linda Dannison and Andrea Smith recently received a $338,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The money will be used to establish 10 Grandparent Resource Centers nationwide, with the goal of improving school readiness among children who are being raised by their grandparents.

According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2000 some 2.4 million grandparents had primary responsibility for grandchildren living in their homes. Dannison said the number of custodial grandparents more than doubled in the 1990s, for reasons including incarceration, employment issues, physical or mental health issues, abuse and neglect, and more recently military deployment. The most common reason for grandparents to assume care of their grandchildren relates to substance abuse by the biological parents, according to Dannison.

"Grandparent caregivers are not new, what's new are the reasons and the numbers," said Dannison, who is chairperson of WMU's Department of Family and Consumer Sciences. "In the past, grandchildren went to live with their grandparents primarily because of economic reasons, or perhaps because a child was orphaned. Now, the more likely reasons might be, 'My son is in jail,' or 'My daughter is mentally ill.' There's a conspiracy of guilt and shame for custodial grandparents that we didn't really have in the past."

In establishing the resource centers, Dannison and Smith will partner with established parenting centers to build programs that support custodial grandparent families. They will partner initially with the Kellogg Foundation's "SPARK" centers in the District of Columbia and seven states: Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina and Ohio. SPARK stands for Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids. The centers are part of the foundation's school readiness program for at-risk children ages 3 to 6. The WMU pair said they hope to identify the centers and begin training this summer.

"Given that substance abuse is the main reason they come into kinship care, these children have often moved around a lot, maybe because mom or dad can't keep a job," said Smith, who is a professor of teaching, learning and leadership. "School readiness may be affected because the children's earliest environments are often inconsistent. The parents, for one reason or another, may not have been able to parent very effectively. Also, many children in kinship care were exposed prenatally to drugs or alcohol, which can also create learning difficulties."

The grant covers a two-and-a-half year period, but Smith and Dannison have developed plans for up to five years of services to the Grandparent Resource Centers. The WMU team's main role will be to train existing staff and evaluate program effectiveness. In the first year, they will offer training on establishing grandparent and grandchildren's support groups, along with in-service education for community professionals including teachers, social workers, public health staff and medical professionals. Plans for the second year include continuation of the support groups, in- home services and training for child care providers. In later years, the centers will focus on finding and implementing school readiness mentors; community education on the role of all grandparents, custodial or otherwise; and the establishment of comprehensive grandparent centers.

"I'll be surprised if any one center looks like another," said Smith. "Each center will work with a local advisory board whose members have a good handle on the community needs. Based on those needs, they'll choose the combination of services for their own community. We might have centers in Washington, D.C., Florida, New Mexico, and Hawaii--we can't assume that their needs will be one-size-fits-all."

Dannison and Smith bring to the project a wealth of knowledge and research on custodial grandparents and other kinship families. Their work has been published in a variety of books, as well as national and international journals. They have written numerous resource materials, including curriculum guides and videos that are used worldwide. The two have lectured as Fulbright scholars in England and have conducted trainings around the United States and in Canada, Ireland and Latvia on custodial grandparent issues.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation was established in 1930 "to help people help themselves through the practical application of knowledge and resources to improve their quality of life and that of future generations." Its programming activities center around the common vision of a world in which each person has a sense of worth; accepts responsibility for self, family, community and societal well-being; and has the capacity to be productive and to help create nurturing families, responsive institutions and healthy communities.

To achieve the greatest impact, the foundation targets its grants toward specific areas. These include: health; food systems and rural development; youth and education; and philanthropy and volunteerism. Within these areas, attention is given to exploring learning opportunities in leadership; information and communication technology; capitalizing on diversity; and social and economic community development. Grants are concentrated in the United States; Latin America and the Caribbean; and the southern African countries of Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland and Zimbabwe.

Media contact: Jessica English, (269) 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu

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