Who’s Minding the KidsBy Lynn Fisher
Fueled by increases in reports of child abuse and neglect, often the result of incarceration, substance abuse, domestic violence and HIV/AIDS, record numbers of children are being raised by their grandmothers.
The 2000 Census revealed that across the United States, nearly 4.5 million children were living in homes headed by 2.4 million grandparents. Half the time, the grandparents, most frequently the grandmothers, are the primary caregivers. While most of these children are white, 13.2 percent are African American, a disproportionately high number when compared to other racial groups.
Many African American grandmothers, already facing difficult choices and challenges, are encountering a new struggle as well: raising children within the rules of the child welfare system. While the grandmothers have physical custody, the state has legal custody.
“The restrictive and challenging nature of caregiving under the watchful eye of the state is often in opposition to the fluid, informal, and flexible traditions that are culturally representative of black families,” says Yvette Murphy, assistant professor in the Fulbright College School of Social Work.
In a study she conducted on the child welfare system in North Carolina, Murphy found that grandmothers often felt the system imposed boundaries on how they should function as families and expected them to step in and raise their grandchildren with little or no support, financially or emotionally.
Further complicating the issue is the historical role of black women as caregivers for “other folk’s children.” Murphy learned that researchers hold very different opinions about whether caring for others’ children is a strength for the African American community and African American women, given that images of the mammy, the matriarch and the welfare mother are stereotypes typically used to oppress black women.
In contrast, some African American women experience motherhood as empowering, teaching them the importance of valuing and respecting themselves.
Murphy found that such oppositions often give rise to a conflicting range of meanings and responses about motherhood among African American women and their families.
While conducting her research, Murphy discovered that African American grandmothers —torn between the needs of their children and their grandchildren, without the services and financial support offered to foster parents and told how they may and may not discipline the children — often responded by becoming advocates for change within the child welfare system.
“Given a history of stereotyping and oppression, black women are typically committed to social activism aimed at making things better for their children, sisters, families and communities,” Murphy says.
Many grandmothers find the restrictions and rules of the child welfare system intrusive.
“It was like I lived — me and my husband lived in a goldfish bowl,” said one grandmother. “We had a guardian (court advocate). Social workers would come to our house at 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning, you know, just to see what was going on because it was (a case involving) abuse and neglect.”
Among the stresses the grandmothers experience is the pressure to adopt. To ensure that children in state custody find permanent homes quickly, Congress passed the Adoption and Safe Families Act in 1997. As a result, grandmothers are faced with the decision to adopt their grandchildren or risk having them adopted by someone outside of the family.
The decision to adopt can place grandmothers in a difficult dilemma: many feel they are being forced to choose between their children and their grandchildren.
One grandmother, voicing sentiments shared by many, told Murphy, “I don’t plan to adopt them, because she’s still their mom. And we have a good relationship, you know, their mom and the children. And I’m not going to take that away from her. Because one day she might get herself together, and she can have those children back.”
A major source of frustration for many of the grandmothers was the difference in support provided to them as opposed to foster parents. They complained of unfairness and injustice when they compared the lower levels of financial, psychological and emotional support offered to them.
Murphy found that such perceived differences in levels of support led many to feel taken for granted, devalued and sometimes treated as though they were invisible. Some felt that the welfare system should be grateful that the grandmothers are saving the system money.
“If we hadn’t had those grandkids,” said one grandmother, “then they would be paying somebody else more money. For a grandchild to go into a (foster or group) home, that’s at least $1,000 a month or more.”
Several described the value of offering genuine love to a grandchild kept within the family as “priceless.”
Murphy found that many child welfare practitioners were aware that raising children within the system was hard for grandmothers trying to balance the needs of their children with those of their grandchildren. They also acknowledged that child welfare policies altered the traditional practices of the grandmothers.
The workers conceded that while they didn’t fully understand the cultural values of these grandmothers, they appreciated the sacrifices many were willing to make for their grandchildren.
One worker, an African American and a grandmother as well, observed “That’s the way it has always been with African American grandparents. We do whatever is needed to make it work. If we have to make a pod on the chair or on the floor, if we are going to have to put three in a bed, then we’re going to do that.”
Murphy plans to conduct a similar study in Arkansas. She hopes her research will offer insights for new training, policies, and education programs within the child welfare system, and, most importantly, she says, “give voice to these gentle yet strong women.”