Grandparents’ group seeks support

It’s a mid-summer day at Betty Cornelius’ home near Bancroft, Ontario. Her 7-year-old granddaughter, Ashleigh, plays with two other children who are visiting for a few days. Cornelius says like her, the grandmother of these children has custody. She’s giving her 64-year-old friend a break.

“I live in a very small place and there are seven of us raising grandchildren in my granddaughter’s school. Seven! And there is absolutely no government support for us.”

Cornelius says there are almost one and a half million Canadian grandparents raising grandchildren. And unlike their American counterparts, they have little official recognition or support.

She’s president of a group called the Association to Reunite Grandparents and Families. They’re sponsoring a quilt project inspired by an American grandparent group. It’s called Hearts and Hands Across Canada, based on the symbols on the quilt. The plan is to present the finished quilt to the Prime Minister on September 10th, Grandparents Day.

Cornelius describes the quilt as measuring 140″ X 140″ with 50 blocks, eac14 by 14, in the main body. The inside perimeters will hold handprints of grandparents and the grandchildren they are raising, with their names in the palms. The outside boundary will contain blocks with hearts, with the names of grandparents and the first names of the denied access grandchildren.

The aim is to raise the profile of grandparents’ rights, according to Cornelius.

Wants more patches
But the Canadian quilt project has hit a snag. So far, Cornelius only has 36 squares. Eleven of these are from the various chapters of another lobby group, the Canadian Grandparents’ Rights Association.

Cornelius says there are other grandparent groups who have yet to respond to the appeal for quilt patches. She’s upset that all the lobby groups aren’t coming together on the project so the public will support the cause.

“I would like the quilt to be bigger and more impressive than it is at the moment. Up to 150 patches is what I’d hoped for. That’s what the Americans got and they challenged me to try and do a Canadian one. The thing is, they quilted the patches for people who sent in their information. I’m not a quilter, so I wasn’t prepared to do that. But at this point, I’m prepared to do the patch for anyone sending in their information.”

“I know at least 170 Canadian grandparents who are either raising their grandchildren or denied access. So I had hoped for a better response. But the ones who are denied access are quite grief-stricken, and just don’t seem able to respond, although they’ve all said they like the idea.”

From her home in McArthurs Mills, northeast of Bancroft, Cornelius writes, phones and e-mails people about the quilt project.

Each tells a story
Cornelius says the 36 squares she has so far come from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia.

“The most beautiful square is one from a grandparent raising her grandchild. She put a large flower 14 by 14 inches to start. Then a lace heart with a pink background with lace on it, and the hands of her and her husband. Their hands are in a light pink, and crossing each other and their little granddaughter’s hand is on top. And it’s quite beautiful,” says Cornelius.

“One of the most heart-breaking ones I have is a hearts one where the grandparents were denied access after their son committed suicide. And their story is quite heart-breaking.”

Cornelius says there’s no doubt in her mind that grandparents’ rights should be raised with the public and the government.

“There’s major government support for grandparents raising grandkids in the U.S. Respite care for example—I know a grandmother who’s 71 looking after 2 grandchildren. She’s exhausted. But there’s absolutely no support as far as the system goes for us. A lot of these children come drug addicted, very needy, lots of alcohol fetal syndrome, ADD (attention deficit disorder) related problems, and again, very little support designed around an older adult raising these children. So those are real issues.”

Grandparents denied access

“And then or course, I want to create awareness for the denied access grandparents as well, because these people phone me and they’re heartbroken. The tears I share with them, and I try to give them a little bit of encouragement, but I really think we need to realize what we’re doing for the grandchildren as well.”

In Canada, the federal Divorce Act and provincial legislation governs child access for third parties. Access may be allowed if it’s in the child’s best interest. Only Quebec, British Columbia and Alberta have access provisions for grandparents that presumes it’s in the child’s best interests to have contact. Other provinces place the onus on grandparents to prove that no contact will actually harm the child.

There is criticism from some legal experts that grandparents don’t have rights, just privileges, which parents are entitled to define. Cornelius has a ready answer, based on her long expensive battle to win custody of her granddaughter from substance abusing parents.

“You can call it what you want. I call it desire and love, and I don’t think a grandchild can have too much love from any adults. To deny a grandchild access to somebody that they’ve had an established bond with is, I think, child abuse. I think we need to focus more on what’s right for the child and not focus so much on the words “rights” or “privileges” for ourselves.”

For more information about the Association to Reunite Grandparents and Families and the Hearts and Hands Across Canada quilt: e-mail Betty Cornelius: [email protected] or phone 613-474-0035.