In Oakland, Helping Grandmothers Care for Addicts' Babies

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OAKLAND, CALIF--To some, they are the glue that holds many inner-city families together.

But such an accolade offers little comfort to grandparents who care full time for the offspring of their drug-addicted children.

They have more pressing concerns, such as: How do I keep my addicted daughter away from my grandchildren? And how do I keep myself sane in the process?

To help grandparents answer these and other questions, local officials here have established the first federally funded training program for grandparents who care for the youngest victim of the drug crisis, many of whom were exposed to drugs in the womb.

This summer, in the basement of the Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in West Oakland, 10 grandmothers attended the week-long program, Families United Against Crack Cocaine, to learn what they can do to help themselves as well as their grandchildren.

They heard educators, health workers, and drug exports spoke on the effects of crack cocaine and other drugs on child development, on how to manage their stress and stay healthy, and on how to handle often daunting family circumstances.

But perhaps most important, they learned they were not the only grandparents to be thrust into a second round of parenthood--and that they could learn from one another.

"Instead of seeing myself as only a grandmother, I see myself as a growth mother," said Patricia Karim, who is raising her 5-year-old grandson.

The program, which is sponsored by Oakland's Office on Aging and funded with a $73,000 federal grant and with local monies, will train up to 50 grandparents. Organizers hope that these grandparents will then be support-group leaders for other older caregivers. The program has also trained 29 children from "drug exposed" environments to be anti-drug leaders in their communities.

'We Are a Substitute'

Although the program is designed primarily to meet the physical and emotional needs of the grandparents themselves, it also helps the second-time parents understand the unique problems facing their grandchildren.

Zakiya Semburu, the project's director, said about two-thirds of the children under the care of grandparents enrolled in her program have been exposed to drugs in the womb. Studies show that such children have difficulty relating to their world, are easily distracted, and have trouble performing some tasks that come easily to other children their age.

County health officials estimate that nearly 11 percent of the children born in Oakland's public hospital between January and September 1990 had been exposed to drugs-most often cocaine--in the womb. The figure for all of 1989 was 16.2 percent. They said it was difficult to determine whether fewer drug'exposed babies are being born or if fewer drug-abusing women are being seen in the medical system.

Just as important as the medical issues, Ms. Semburu and others said, is the fact that many of these children have been raised in chaotic environments. And while the grandparents may provide stability, they can never take the place of the child's parents, some of the participants in the program noted.

"Don't tell me that they don't want their momma," Ms. Karim said. "We are a substitute."

Ms. Semburu said many of the grandparents have been recruited from other support programs in the city, some of which have been set up at local hospitals, churches, and child-care programs. These programs, she said, offer more than just emotional support. They also tell grandparents about the various public-assistance programs they may qualify for, as well as how to obtain legal custody of their grandchildren.

"Grandparents have been caring for grandchildren since time immemorial," Ms. Semburu said. 'What is different is the drug use."

She said officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which funded the pilot training program, hope it can serve as a model for other intergenerational projects. Part of the federal grant, she said, will be asked to develop reference materials for other communities that may want to replicate the project.

Grandparents 'Fill the Gaps'

Although officials in this racially diverse city of 350,000 do not know how many children of drug-abusing parents are in the care of their grandparents, they believe the number is growing. They estimate that about one-fifth of the 500 children enrolled in the local Head Start program have a grandparent as their primary caretaker.

Local educators said that in some elementary schools, a substantial number of children are being cared for by their grandparents. Lynne Rodezno, the principal of Whittier Year Round School, for example, estimated that about half of the disciplinary conferences she had in a recent week had been with grandparents.

"Nine times out of ten, the children are coming from a situation where there are no limits," said Jennifer Jacks, a school psychologist at three Oakland elementary schools, one of which is Whittier. "By the time they get to the grandma, they have often been in trouble at school."

Nationally, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that more than 900,000 children live in grandparent-only households. Although the bureau does not project how many of these children have drug-abusing parents, some observers believe that their numbers are increasing.

"As the crack epidemic spreads, more and more grandparents have come in to fill the gaps," said Arthur Kornhaber, president of the Foundation for Grandparenting. "Many are loving grandparents, and want to fulfill that role. But they've done [parenting] once, and they are a little resentful."

On the other hand, he said, despite the unfortunate circumstances that generally lead to a child's being placed with his grandparents, "a lot of [the second-time parents] are better as grandparents than they were as parents. Nature has given them a chance to make amends."

Growing Burden

At the same time, there is evidence that these grandparents--especially grandmothers living in inner cities--face far more health and financial problems than do their peers.

Meredith Minkler, a professor of public health at the University of California at Berkeley, has studied 71 of these older caregivers in Oakland and found that, "many of these women are in poorer health than most women their age, yet they have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient."

Ms. Minkler, who is writing a book about these grandmothers together with Kathleen Roe, a professor at San Jose State University, said most of the women they interviewed said their primary need was respite care. Yet, she said, "they were extremely good at coping, because they were so focused on their grandchildren."

Another major need of these grandparents, several observers said, is money. Many of these caretakers, who are often single women, have to quit their jobs to oversee their grandchildren. Adding insult to injury, they said, is that a number of states, including California, pay foster parents more than indigent, but related, caregivers.

During their week of training, the 10 grandmothers, all of whom were black and ranged in age from the early 40's to near 70, learned that carrying too much of the child-rearing burden by themselves is a bad thing--not only for themselves, but for their addicted adult child as well.

"We spend all our energy dealing with the addict's problem, but we don't deal with our own," said Donald Sutton, the program coordinator for the Oakland Crack Task Force, who was explaining how a "co-dependent" person, such as the grandmother, can enable an addicted adult offspring to remain dysfunctional.

At that moment, Vivian Jefferson, a grandmother caring for several young children, explained how she had set a July 1 deadline for her daughter to leave her home and enroll in a rehabilitation program.

"I told her: 'You have a choice. You can enter a program and get your life together. But I can't deal with you and your problem. I love you, but I don't like what you're doing,'" she told the group.

But at that point, another grandmother asked, 'What kind of conversation can you have with them? They're off in their own world."

Heavy Burdens

At another session, Anna Johnson, a social worker at Eastmont Mall Medical Center, told the women: "This is the first thing you have to know: It's O.K. to tell people no."

While the women acknowledged that it sometimes is appropriate to refuse requests made by other adults, particularly those of their addicted offspring, saying no to their grandchildren, they said, is a different matter.

Roberta Wilson, who is raising two elementary-school-age granddaughters by herself, said she routinely has to use coupons allotted by the state's Medicaid program for her meetings with a therapist to pay for her childrens' mental-health sessions. "If I take care of their medical needs, then I can't take care of my own," she said.

"I found I had to adjust my life to my grandchild," said Nealie Wheaton, who cares for her son's 4-year old boy, who was abandoned by his drug-abusing mother at birth. "I had to put my life on hold."

To care for her grandson, Ms. Wheaton said she has had to learn new things about child rearing.

"I thought you just put toys on the floor and let them play," Ms. Wheaton said. "But they told me that for special-needs children, you just put one toy out and let him master it."

For many of the grandmothers at the training session, caring for their grandchildren was a mixed blessing. While they all said that their grandchildren brought them great joy, there was a definite sense of sadness and pain in many women's voices when they spoke of their own offspring.

"It's too heavy for me sometimes," said Willie Mae Robinson, who cares for her 5-year-old grandson. The child's mother is a crack addict and "doesn't even have an address," she said.

"Most of the time when she calls, she's high," she said. "She tells [her son] a bunch of lies."

For now, Ms. Robinson's main concern is trying to become her grandson's legal guardian. She said she hopes the proceedings, which would declare her daughter an unfit mother, will prompt the 31-year-old to seek help in kicking her drug habit.

So far, she said, the court will only grant her temporary guardianship.

"It hurts the bottom of your heart sometimes," she said.

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Page 10

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as In Oakland, Helping Grandmothers Care for Addicts'Babies
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