Parents all over again

The story is new, but all too familiar for Linda Truitt. Someone
knocked on the door in the middle of the night, and suddenly a
grandmother was holding her 6-month-old granddaughter, a new mother
again in her late 50s.
The story is new, but all too familiar for Linda Truitt. Someone knocked on the door in the middle of the night, and suddenly a grandmother was holding her 6-month-old granddaughter, a new mother again in her late 50s.

Truitt, who runs a local support group for grandparents raising their grandchildren in the absence of stable parents, has heard the story all too often. But before that, she lived it.

After a painful divorce, Truitt’s daughter had become involved with a group of friends who passed their time drinking and using drugs. Vowing that the situation would be temporary, she asked Truitt to take the children because “she couldn’t handle it right then.”

“That was eight years ago,” said Truitt who lives in Gilroy, now 60, who had been planning on retiring with her husband much sooner. “She was divorced. The dad didn’t come forth, so someone has to step up.”

Like Truitt, an increasing number of South Valley residents are caring for children late in life as their adult children fall prey to substance abuse, incarceration or, sometimes, death. According to the 2000 census, 11 percent of the area’s children are cared for by a relative, and nationwide there are more than 5.4 million children in similar situations, a 30 percent rise since 1990.

Kathy Kellett, a case manager at the Grandparent Caregiver Resource Center in San Jose, helps these new parental figures deal with the transition from independent near-retirees to overnight moms and dads.

“The children often don’t come with clothing (when Social Services workers drop them off), just what’s on their back,” said Kellett. “There’s so much to do in the beginning – finding space for them, a bed, getting child care, making sure their medical is taken care of, getting them into school. It can be very difficult, especially if you don’t have guardianship.”

Kellett’s counsel is especially helpful to new caregivers because she’s been there herself.

Kellett took in two of her daughter’s three children when their mother disappeared into the drug culture (the kids’ paternal grandparents took one of the children). It took her more than a year to figure out the process of caring for them, but the planning was hardly the most painful part of the experience.

Grandparents suddenly confronted with the prospect of raising their grandchildren are often plagued by monetary woes, especially those on fixed incomes. However, the guilt and shame that accompany the little ones on their doorstep are difficult emotions to express.

“A lot of people don’t want to come forward and air their dirty laundry,” said Truitt. “You feel failure as a parent. What did I do wrong? How could I raise this child to an adult stage and they’re not responsible, or they’re addicted?”

The feeling of shame is often compounded by one of obsolescence as grandparents discover just how different the tenants of modern parenting are from the culture they grew up with and the rules by which they raised their own children.

If the foster care system was first to claim the grandchildren, the grandparents must prove their home is fit for the children to live in and attend parenting classes, many of which come with a series of shocks for the older generation who will soon learn what it means to raise a child so often born to drug exposure, sexual abuse and neglect.

Even the simple things change. Schools move faster; trends move faster; life itself seems to move faster; and there’s never enough time or money to keep up.

“You’re thinking you’re going to retire, and now you have to buy shoes and clothes for five kids,” said Lynn del Campo, a 56-year-old foster mother who provides respite care for grandparents, enabling them to have the occasional weekend free from the kids. “We don’t have the energy to take them to enjoy sports, let alone the money to pay for them.”

Then there are the heartwrenching questions.

“One time my grandson said to me, ‘Did my mommy not want me?'” said Kellett. “It really took me back. I just told him that she did and that she wanted him to live in a stable house with people who loved him and so he could be able to go to the school he goes to and play baseball and go camping. She knew that she couldn’t do that for him right now.”

Yet in the midst of struggle, there are good times, happy times.

Peter and Qui Brodsgaard, who live in Gilroy, took in their son’s daughter when she was just five days old. The child of drug-addicted parents who are in and out of jail, Serena was born while her mother was serving time, and methamphetamines showed up in Serena’s system.

The arrangement was not formal, so when their son was released from jail in October and his girlfriend, the mother of Serena, was on the run from authorities, the grandparents set up a meeting.

I told them the best thing for Serena is for us to have guardianship of her,” said Qui. “And the best decision they ever made was to give consent for us to petition for guardianship.”

The couple made their petition in December with the aid of Catholic Charities, which offers support services to grandparents raising their grandchildren regardless of religious background. On Feb. 15, they were awarded custody of Serena, who will celebrate her first birthday on March 28.

“From the bottom of our hearts, we don’t want Serena to be another statistic, another drug statistic,” said Qui. Peter will continue working so that the couple can support their granddaughter, and friends and family have come to the couple’s aid in raising the baby. “With her coming into our lives, the last 11 months have been wonderful. We are very lucky to have her, and she’s very lucky to be with us.”

Kellett just heard from her daughter for the first time in five years.

She’s working and building a responsible life. The same can be said for Truitt’s daughter, who has been clean and sober for a year and a half.

“We didn’t know where she was for about five or six years,” said Truitt. “She’s doing really good, and we’re very proud of her. She never went through a program. She just said no way did she ever want to be in prison, so it’s one day at a time and keeping busy with the right people.”

Truitt’s daughter is also rebuilding her relationship with her kids. Her son, now 19, is employed as a mechanic, and her 17-year-old daughter looks forward to attending college.

“I tell her, ‘You have a lot of amends to make,'” said Truitt. “There was anger, but they can see she’s really trying. We tell the kids everybody is allowed to make a mistake. It’s correcting it and taking responsibility that are the important things. When she came back, they sat and talked. She told them there was nothing she could do to turn it around, but they could always go forward.”

Grandparents who are struggling don’t have to go it alone. Support groups in the area include the Catholic Charities, reachable at (408) 325-5164, and Grandparents Night Out, (408) 441-5189. Catholic charities offers support, social interaction, and respite care as well as services to aid those in need of legal help or guardian’s petition information. To search a list of support groups in California, visit www.GrandmasAngels.org.

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