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A second helping

Posted by watchingcyfswatchnewzealand on April 14, 2007

Source: The Nelson Mail

A second helping

The Nelson Mail | Saturday, 7 April 2007

SWING SHIFT: Grandparents like Paula Eggers, coordinator of the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust support group, is but one of increasing number of grandparents parenting their grandchildren.
PATRICK HAMILTON/Nelson Mail

The beauty of grandchildren is that after all the hours of play and storybooks you can hand them back and enjoy the peace of an empty home. Except, as Sally Kidson discovers, more grandparents are becoming full-time parents again – at a time in their lives they thought their time parenting young children had finished – raising their children’s children.

For many, retirement means finally having the time to do the things you want, spending hours on favourite hobbies and spoiling grandchildren when they visit.

But Nelson pensioner Dave doesn’t have the luxury of slowing down. His dreams of beers on the porch with friends or pottering in the garden have been turned upside down, shattered with the everyday realities of caring for two young grandchildren.

For the past 3? years the 65-year-old has cared fulltime for two children under age 11.

He is not alone. A growing number of grandparents in the Nelson region, and across New Zealand, are raising their grandchildren.

They find themselves left caring for their mokopuna for a range of reasons. Their own children may have become pregnant as teenagers, died or have problems with substance abuse or mental health conditions.

Some grandparents help out until their children find themselves in a more stable situation. But others, like Dave, end up with their grandkids permanently.

Dave and his wife sought custody of the grandchildren because they were growing up in a household where the parents had alcohol, drug and mental health problems.

Their mother, and at times the children, were also physically abused.

“My wife used to go round every couple of days with stew or something to make sure the kids were fed.

“One day she arrived and the house was in a hell of a mess, with windows smashed and blood everywhere.”

She called the authorities and after 18 months, during which time the children were in Child Youth and Family care, he and his wife finally gained custody of the pair.

There was no soft re-introduction to parenting – Dave’s wife died soon after they got the grandchildren.

“You wonder if she was hanging on just to make sure the children were with us,” he says.

Left alone and denied time to grieve for his partner, Dave found himself bringing up two badly scarred youngsters and fighting the system to find out what help he was entitled to.

It was 2? years before he discovered he was entitled to respite care.

At times he felt like he was “going nuts”.

“No disrespect to the ladies, but there’s nothing in the law about a grandfather on their own raising children.

“I wasn’t given the same respect as a woman.”

Despite having raised his own children, Dave was made to go to a parenting course one night a week for 10 weeks.

A self-professed “grumpy pakeha”, he says he was nearly thrown off the course when he challenged a social worker’s view that pakeha should not bring up Maori children.

The financial pressures of bringing up children on a limited wage are huge, he says.

He receives a fortnightly pension and fortnightly allowance for the children.

He lives in a Housing New Zealand home and pays $96 a week rent. This leaves about $400 a week for food, clothes, medical, household and schooling expenses for the three of them.

He can scrape by but has no money for extras like school holiday treats.

“They come to me and say `My mates are doing this programme. Can we?’ And I say, `I’m sorry’.

“They can’t understand why they can’t go and it’s very hard to explain.

“One of them came up with, `We can’t because we are poor, eh Grandad’,” he recalls.

On top of the weekly battle to pay the bills, Dave, like many other grandparents spoken to for this story, finds dealing with government agencies such as Work and Income and CYFS a headache.

If the stress wasn’t so obvious, some of his dealings with the departments would be comical, he says.

Eighteen months ago he received a letter from Work and Income telling him his benefit would be cut unless he could prove he was 28 weeks pregnant.

He confronted Work and Income staff, only to be told he still had to go to the doctor’s to get a medical certificate.

“I made them pay the bloody doctor’s bill,” he says, shaking his head.

A few months ago he received a phone call from Work and Income checking if he had died.

“I asked them if they often talked to dead people.”

Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Nelson coordinator Paula Eggers says the number of grandparents who contact her for support is growing.

She has 43 grandparents on her books and has picked up six new names in the last two weeks.

About 3600 grandparents are registered with the group nationally.

Eggers set up the Nelson chapter when she started caring for her granddaughter and couldn’t find any established support groups.

Eggers now has care of three grandchildren and also fosters two more.

The Nelson grandparents she deals range in age from 36 to their mid-80s, and come from all socio-economic backgrounds.

The main reason they end up caring for their grandchildren is because their parents have mental health problems or are involved in drugs and/or alcohol, she says.

The day the Nelson Mail catches up with Eggers she is out of breath from rushing to make our appointment on time.

She spent the morning on the phone, “which never stops ringing”, supporting grandparents. And she had a restless night worrying about the “sticky” situation one of her grandparents is in through no fault of their own.

Her cellphone rings throughout the interview and it’s obvious that for many Nelson grandparents she’s an important support.

“A lot of these grandparents are so old and so tired,” Eggers says.

Through the group she arranges support meetings and social activities, gives advice, attends court and custody hearings with grandparents and helps them to get the benefits and support they are entitled to.

Over the years she has fostered good relationships with CYFS and other agencies, she says.

Most grandparents feel ashamed when they first contact her, and worry what society will think of them. They fear they will be judged, and think they are the only ones having to raise their grandchildren.

“They are very embarrassed and feel they are failures,” Eggers says.

However, she stresses that most of the grandparents she deals with are decent people.

“As it was put to me, you bring your kids up to the best of your ability, but when they get to be adults you are not responsible for what they do with their lives.”

Many grandparents also live in fear, she says. They are terrified the children’s parents may end up at their door demanding to see their children.

She knows of grandparents who sleep clutching the phone under their pillow, and of others who have softball bats at the front and back doors.

Stress can also come from elsewhere in the family.

“It isn’t just taking on grandchildren. You get the rest of the extended family, the hassle of them going, `What are you doing that for? You don’t spend as much time with my kids’.

“The parents of other grandchildren can get quite jealous. That’s a major.”

Straight-talking Eggers wants people to consider, before they judge grandparents, what they would do if they were faced with their grandchildren suddenly arriving on the doorstep.

“The more people that are aware of how many grandparents that are out there raising their grandchildren, the more they might understand.”

Phyllis, 81, is one of the oldest grandmothers in the support group that Eggers coordinates. She has been raising grandchildren for 21 years.

She has a 26-year-old grandson who has left home, and is now dealing with a teenage granddaughter who doesn’t want to go to school.

Phyllis also looks after an eight-year-old, at an age many of her peers are being cared for in resthomes.

“She’s eight going on 28 and tells me what to do,” Phyllis says.

Her daughter, the children’s mother, was an alcoholic.

Phyllis, who now needs a walking stick to get around, finds dealing with the school and agencies hard work and worries what will become of her teenage granddaughter who wants to leave school.

Phyllis is bone-tired but says she doesn’t have time to feel sorry for herself as she’s got too much else to worry about.

Katrina, 38, is one of the youngest grandparents Eggers helps. She has a two-year-old of her own and the day the Nelson Mail talks to her she is waiting to find out if she has finally won custody of her 18-month-old grandson.

The boy’s father is a gang-member up north and his mother, Katrina’s 19-year-old daughter, is a methamphetamine and intravenous drug addict who is also caught up with gangs.

“I want my grandson with me. He’s my first grandchild.”

After seven months of waiting to get custody, Katrina is also tired, and is thankful she is not Phyllis’s age.

“It would’ve pushed me off the edge.”

Nelson solicitor Nicola Grimes represents many grandparents raising their grandchildren. She became involved with the group after she read about it in a newsletter.

“I see this as my cause,” she says from her office overlooking Hardy St.

Most Nelson family lawyers act for grandparents, she says.

She deals with three groups of grandparents: those who have children placed with them through CYFS; those who obtain parenting orders for their grandchildren; and grandparents who reach informal agreements with their children.

Other grandparents reach agreements without formal court orders, but she doesn’t know how big that group would be.

Grandparents also have to deal with guilt. The way the legal system works, it can make them feel they are pitted against their children, which is incredibly tough, says Grimes.

Aside from dealing with often-traumatised grandchildren, many grandparents are exposed to the legal system for the first time, she says.

They also have to find out what financial and other help is available to them.

One of the issues grandparents face is the gap between the different allowances available to different types of caregivers through different government departments.

Grandparents whose grandchildren have been placed with them by CYFS temporarily qualify for allowances for a range of things, including clothing, birthdays, school holiday programmes, extra-curricular activities and medical expenses.

But once grandparents obtain permanent care of the child they usually fall under Work and Income’s jurisdiction and receive an unsupported child allowance.

Any extra costs they face must be paid for first and then Work and Income may reimburse them later.

Many simply don’t have the money to begin with.

The Government increased the unsupported child benefit or orphans benefit by $10 a week per child this month. But making ends meet is still very hard for grandparents, says Grimes.

Work and Income acting regional commissioner Wendy Chisnall says extra expenses, such as school uniforms or visits to the doctor, could be covered through advances, which are then paid back at a minimal rate, usually up to $5 a week.

The grandparent or the child may also be eligible for assistance from several other schemes.

Dave says his grandchildren are still so traumatised he isn’t allowed to even park outside a pub or liquor store when he goes to town. They also won’t let him go to the pub.

“When the oldest was five years old, they could look at a piece of junk-mail from an alcohol store and tell you what every picture was.

“That’s why I won’t let people run them round. They were very badly affected. They’re just coming right now.”

But despite everything – the tiredness, the loneliness and the difficulty of negotiating the unfamiliar benefit systems – Dave is adamant that the children are in the right place with him, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“A lot of people tell me I’m an idiot.

“So I ask them, what would they do if it was their grandchildren?”

* With the exception of Paula Eggers, the grandparents interviewed for this feature requested anonymity so pseudonyms have been used in place of their real names.

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