In 2008, when Bernadette Olson learned her 10-month-old granddaughter was back in foster care, she had a few hours to decide if she and her husband Terry would take the baby. Olson was torn in two.
After raising four children, then providing day care to grandchildren for several years, she’d spent about 47 years taking care of kids and was ready for a break during retirement. Olson, 61, loved her granddaughter and was heartbroken at the situation.
“We’ve always taken care of everybody but us,” she said. “But we didn’t feel like we had a choice. I didn’t want to see her bounce, bounce, bounce (between foster homes).”
Though they expected she’d only live with them for a few weeks, they ended up adopting Emily, who is almost 4.
The Olsons are not alone.
In 2010, well over 2 million grandparents were responsible for their grandchildren, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
In fact, the number of grandchildren living with their grandparents increased 64 percent between 1991 and 2009.
But raising grandchildren, or other young relatives, can be a lonely, thankless endeavor.
“We don’t have a support system,” said Bernadette Olson, explaining that their only break is when Emily is at preschool or when they attend the monthly Relatives Raising Relatives support group sponsored by the Children’s Home Society. She found the group after scouring the Internet for resources, desperate for help.
“The biggest challenge is having energy, patience and stamina to deal with the behavioral issues. I’m tired,” she said.
Though very smart and often funny, Emily has behavioral issues the Olsons think stem from maternal drug and alcohol use and her early months of instability. Years of parenting experience didn’t prepare them for the challenges they’d face when they brought her home.
“We had four highly active, energetic grandsons. She doesn’t compare,” said Terry, 56.
According to Children’s Home Society program manager Tami Cunningham, children living with custodial relatives often have unique and difficult needs.
“The kids are taken out of their original home and placed in relative care because something has happened. They need a lot of support,” said Cunningham, noting that most resources that might have helped these families have lost funding.
“As we get a lot more kids being placed into relative care, whether it’s an aunt or grandparent or even a sibling, the resources are going away for those families,” said Cunningham. “These are the kiddos that, through no fault of their own, have been put into hard situations. We have to help these grandparents and aunts and uncles. Our goal is to support families and children. That’s why we offer this group and keep it going.”
Participant Mary Gower first learned of the group when she provided child care during meetings. “I never dreamt I would be attending the classes,” she said, explaining that she began caring for her great-niece and nephew in 2008.
“You hear other people talking about their grandchildren. You aren’t the only one in the boat,” said Gower of the group, which referred her to parenting classes and lined up counseling for her niece Isabella. “The directors have information that could help you out, and they kind of pat you on the back for doing a good job and just being there.”
Besides providing a place to connect, the group aims to bring in experts who can provide insight on a variety of issues, from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome to behavioral and attachment challenges.
“A lot of these kids may have special needs,” said Cunningham. “Just knowledge of why my child is acting this way can help. Knowing that, when kids are put into tough situations, their behaviors may not be what I want to see and how do we get them through that.”
Over the 16 years the group has been meeting, originally under the name Second Timers, Cunningham said they’ve seen a positive impact on the families it serves. “We’ve watched the kids come in and really struggle. As the families get supported, the more support they have, these kids just thrive. … We’ve been able to watch them grow.”
The Olsons have that hope for Emily, a hope that has taken the place of dreams they once had for themselves. “When you hit our age you don’t have the, ‘When the kids grow up we’ll do this.’ We don’t have a future after her,” said Bernadette. “I’m not an angel. We’re trying to do the right thing. I just want her to be happy.”