Chuck and Shirley Young learned three years ago that their great-grandchildren had been placed in foster care in Cranbrook, B.C.
The kids had been left with a family friend while their mother went on vacation. Police, responding to complaints of a loud party, removed the children from a home described as “filthy” in legal documents.
Within three weeks, Shirley, 68, and Chuck, 71, had requested custody.
“I said, ‘Honey, they’re going to put those kids up for adoption,’” Chuck Young recalled. “She said, ‘Over my dead body.’
“And so we went to court.”
The Coeur d’Alene couple battled for two years, representing themselves before a Canadian judge and submitting to psychological testing to determine their fitness as caregivers.
Their efforts paid off last May when they won their case, despite petitions for custody from both of the children’s birth parents. A month later came the day now known as “Gotcha Day” in the Young household.
On June 28, 2008, the Godin children – Macaylee, 5, Brayden, 6, Destiny, 8, and Keira, 9 – came to live at the four-bedroom, two-bathroom house on Seventh Street in Coeur d’Alene.
Though the Youngs were relieved, the battle was just beginning for the couple, who sacrificed their retirement to return to a world of parent-teacher conferences, Cub Scouts and multiplication tables.
They’re not the only grandparents to raise grandchildren in this country, nor the only great-grandparents. Statistics from the 2000 U.S. Census show some 5.7 million grandparents live with grandchildren, 2.4 million of them as primary caregivers. The Youngs join the more than 700,000 grandparent caregivers who are older than 60, the Census shows. In Idaho, about 8,000 grandparents are the primary caregivers of grandchildren.
But this family faces additional challenges: Because the children are Canadians living in the U.S., they fall through the cracks in the social service networks both nations provide to ensure the well-being of kids. Services that would be available to these children if they were American are not. And services available in Canada have not been transferrable, though the Youngs can access medical care for the children with a six-hour round-trip drive. The mental health problems of the rambunctious children are just now becoming clear, and the couple are desperate to find assistance.
Complicating matters, Chuck Young is facing a potentially terminal illness with an uncertain prognosis. That hangs over the couple’s head as they struggle to provide the children with an assurance of security.
“I have a strong faith and I really believe the Lord placed these kids here for a reason,” Shirley Young said. “He had a plan for these kids. I just pray that I will have the strength and the health to get them to a certain point in life. That’s what my goal is.”
The beginning of the battle
The morning after they won custody of the children, the retired sheriff’s sergeant woke up and looked at his wife.
“Good morning, Daddy,” she said.
“Good morning, Mama,” he responded.
The enormity of the coming change was still sinking in.
Despite the court order granting the Youngs custody, their first task was to start all over again with the U.S. judicial system. The court order had to be accepted in Idaho to assure it would be honored in this country. It was the first in a long list of expensive legal hoops the Youngs have had to jump through to settle their Canadian great-grandchildren in the United States.
“All of this we’ve gone through is just to get your grandchildren to come live with you and look after them,” Shirley said. “This thing has gone on forever and ever.”
In September 2008, First District Court in Kootenai County confirmed the custody order. Next was a visit to the county administration building for identification cards, only to learn the children first needed Social Security cards.
On Dec. 17, the Youngs packed up their new minivan and drove to Lewiston in a blizzard for an appointment with the only certified immigration doctor willing to perform the physicals the children needed in time to complete applications for permanent residency.
On April 1, the Youngs broke out the children’s Easter outfits early for a special appointment at the federal courthouse in downtown Spokane. That was the day the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services granted the children resident-alien status.
Perhaps the Youngs’ biggest remaining challenge is to secure medical insurance for the children. A month after they arrived, Keira had recurring headaches and fever. Doctors at a walk-in clinic recommended the emergency room, where $4,000 later, the Youngs still didn’t know what was wrong with her. Now they’re chipping away at that bill, $50 per month.
Brayden needed glasses ($200) and had a false pink-eye scare ($75). The children needed immunizations, and a couple of weeks ago, Macaylee began acting up. She cut the legs off a pair of pants, ripped out the underside of her bunk bed and chopped her long blond bangs back to her scalp with children’s scissors she found in her new backpack for kindergarten. Teachers at preschool said she’d begun bullying other children. A mental health specialist with Head Start diagnosed Reactive Attachment Disorder.
“She was a little over 2 when she was taken from her mom. Now’s she been away from her mom longer than she was with her,” Shirley Young said. “They all have scars. I don’t care what kind of foster home you put them in. It’s two years away from the family. What did they think, nobody wanted them?”
Although President Barack Obama signed legislation Feb. 4 reauthorizing the Children’s Health Insurance Program and giving states the right to provide Medicaid to legal immigrant children, states have five years to implement the change. The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare denied the Youngs’ application for Medicaid, saying the state had no money to expand the program this year. The Youngs plan to appeal.
In the meantime, they have registered the children at the nonprofit Dirne Clinic, which will provide basic health and dental care at a 50 percent discount, Shirley Young said. If something serious happens, she said, she’ll make the three-hour drive to Canada, where they’re eligible for government-sponsored health care.
“We’re a unique case,” said Shirley, whose granddaughter is the children’s mother. “The kids are caught in the Catch-22. They’re caught between the United States and Canada. But they’re safe and happy and I don’t know how many times a day they say, ‘I love you.’”
A change late in life
The change in the Youngs’ life has left precious little time for the couple, who are really still newlyweds. They met over the Internet and dated five years before marrying in July 2005. Both said they hadn’t been looking to marry, but when Shirley cared for Chuck after his open-heart surgery, she realized she didn’t want to live without him.
They settled into Chuck’s Coeur d’Alene home. His pension, combined with Social Security, gave them a monthly income of about $3,000, enough to provide a comfortable retirement. They loved to go out to dinner, and Shirley golfed and enjoyed restoring antique wedding dresses. When North Idaho winters were too severe, they escaped to Southern California’s beaches. They dreamed of buying a fifth wheel and touring the South.
That changed when four children filled the home’s remaining three bedrooms. Now the hallway light is flicked on at 7 a.m., a signal to get up for school. Cheerios with a squirt of honey are set out in SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer bowls with chewable vitamins alongside each place. The children practice spelling words for Friday quizzes and struggle with math problems before dinner.
The day starts about 6 a.m. and doesn’t wind down until Keira, the oldest, is tucked in at 8:30 p.m. The Youngs collapse into bed shortly after, and the next day it starts all over again.
“Sometimes we sneak over to Denny’s for the senior breakfast,” Shirley said with a wry laugh. “You don’t plan anything. You take each day as it comes.”
The home is a loving but disciplined one where the children know what to expect at every minute. Shoes, hats and mittens go in color-coded stacked bins near the front door. Clothing for school is laid out on each child’s bed during breakfast. Chuck drives Macaylee to preschool at the Harding Family Center, then returns to deliver Keira, Destiny and Brayden to Borah Elementary School. After school comes homework, then dinner at 5 sharp, then 20 minutes of reading before pajamas and bedtime. Friday is pizza and pop night, and on Sunday, they put on their best clothes and head to Church of the Nazarene.
The children frequently snuggle up to their great-grandparents for hugs and kisses, and anyone who asks will be shown the picture of “my babies” that Chuck keeps in his wallet. Free time is spent on laundry, grocery shopping or scouring secondhand stores for clothing in children’s sizes 6-8. Before the children arrived, groceries cost about $200 per month; now they top $500.
“It’s a blessing, but it hurts,” Chuck Young said. “It’s given us all kinds of problems, but hey, what do you do when it’s blood? You gotta look after your kids.”
“I love these kids an awful lot. I was one of 11, and I learned families stuck together,” Shirley Young said. “My goal is just to see them graduate. If I could get them to that stage, I wouldn’t worry so much.”
But something else complicates their plans. Chuck Young has lung cancer and his prognosis is uncertain.
“All I’m doing is praying,” Chuck says. “I need to get it over with because I’ve got four kids to raise. If not, I’m going to have to start making arrangements for Shirley and the kids. I’m leaving it in God’s hands.”