Currently, fourteen support groups exist in Montana, including three on reservations. The program, in partnership with agencies such as AARP, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, and county extension agents, also sends out newsletters and holds conferences and seminars. The grandparent newsletter reaches out to over 300 grandparents and service providers. More than 260 grandparents and service providers have attended annual GRG state conferences.
“I have zero rights.
I don’t know whether my daughter’s
coming or going.”
“Grandparents raising their grandchildren save the State of Montana an estimated $116,000 a day in foster care payments,” Bailey recently wrote in an article. That is a significant number, especially in these economic times.
In 2007, GRG received an additional grant from the Beim Foundation to continue addressing kinship issues, especially in the area of mental health. However, the grant was only for Gallatin and Park counties in Montana. Bailey says some of the support groups around Montana are struggling right now due to lack of money.
Montana ranks ninth in the nation by AARP for the increase in grandparents who have grandchildren living with them. The number has increased 53% in Montana from 1990-2000. Bailey says these family situations cross all socio-economic areas.
The average age of a grandparent raising a grandchild is 60; however, some are as young as 37, and others are in their 80s and might be raising a great-grandchild.
No Rights, No Help
The 2003 US Census estimates that 2.4 million children are being cared for by grandparents. Many hope their situation is temporary; most end up caring for their grandchildren much longer. In Montana, the average length is seven years.
“Grandparents often step in to protect their grandchildren before the child welfare system removes the children from the home,” says Letiecq. “Since the children are not in the system, grandparents are not eligible for certain services.”
Richard and Jean, whose grandchildren were panhandling, did not know about their grandchildren’s Medicaid and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) eligibility. They paid out-of-pocket for health care until they ran through their savings.
Richard said, “We almost lost the house because we didn’t know what we were eligible for.”
Through Grandparents Raising Grandchildren support groups, conferences, and newsletters, grandparents are finding out just what resources are available.
The uncertainty of how long grandchildren will be in their homes creates a situation that leaves grandparents also wondering about their rights. Until recently, they had no legal rights to make medical or education decisions for their grandchildren. In some cases, parents, who still are not ready to assume responsibilities, return for the children. In Montana, grandparents had no legal authority over their grandchildren in such cases.
“I have zero rights. I don’t know whether my daughter’s coming or going, and if she demands to take my grandson, I can’t stop her,” said one grandmother.
However, in 2007, the Montana legislature passed a series of bills regarding child custody that gave grandparents some legal rights.
“These bills were informed by our research with grandparents and a Montana Family Policy Impact Seminar sponsored in part by MSU’s Department of Health and Human Development and held in Bozeman in 2006,” said Letiecq. “During the seminar, three national experts educated legislators and state officials about the need for relative caregiver rights.”
The bills gave grandparents the right to seek and approve medical care for grandchildren and to enroll children and discuss school matters with school personnel. Most importantly, they gave grandparents the authority to keep the children until a court could decide if a parent was stable enough to resume childcare responsibilities.
Many grandparents are now seeking legal custody or guardianships, and in some cases, even legally adopting their grandchildren.
The rewards of “the second time around” can be many. Some grandparents watch first hand as their grandchildren grow into mature young adults and head off to college. For others, it’s a chance to turn a child’s life around, as well as their own.
As one grandmother said, “I have a second chance, and I’m going to do it right this time.”