Raising the grandchildren

Chantal could hardly contain herself when she arrived home from kindergarten. During dinner, when her family asked about her day, she said that she had told her teacher, “My papa did my braids last night. He’s the best papa in the whole world, and I love him to bits.”

It was a moment to make any parent proud. Only Chantal’s “papa” is not her father. Hermann Volchert, 63, is Chantal’s grandfather. As are many grandparents across Canada, he and his wife, Sheila, 57, are the sole caregivers for their grandchildren, six-year-old Chantal and five-year-old Brittany.

It’s a choice forced on increasing numbers of people. The 2001 census reveals that 56,790 children are living with their grandparents without parental involvement. And just over half of these grandparents are doing the job without a partner. In comparing the statistics from the provinces, Ontario tops the list with 19,445 children who call grandparents mom and dad.

Who’s there to help?
Teen pregnancy, drug addiction, mental illness, death and sometimes a simple refusal by young parents to care for their children are leaving grandparents with stark choices. Shla says simply that her daughter “went down the wrong path in life.” As a result, Chantal and Brittany were about to be made wards of the crown. “We had one of two choices,” says Sheila. “Raise them or lose them.”

At a time when child neglect and abuse are of increasing concern to Canadians, the contribution grandparents are making to the welfare of our children goes almost unrecognized. There is hardly any research available on the impact grandparents are having and will have on Canada’s next generation, and government support for the care they offer is actually on the decline.

“The role of grandparents is not valued in our society,” says Annette Bruce, 60, of Legal, Alberta, who, with her husband, Gordon, also 60, raised their granddaughter, Alicia, 12. “They think you babysit, but beyond that, governments and social work professionals just don’t get it.” Sheila, who lives in Ontario, estimates grandparents in that province receive $6 a day temporary care allowance for each child they are raising compared to the $25 to $30 a day that foster parents receive.

Next page: Stepping up to the plate

Stepping up to the plate
According to Esme Fuller-Thomson, associate professor of social work at the University of Toronto and one of the few academics in Canada interested in the field, an American study that appeared in The Gerontologist shows that children raised by grandparents fare almost as well as those raised in a traditional two-parent environment.

These are grandparents who are willing to put their lives on hold and forgo retirement dreams to raise their grandchildren. Why? “So you know they’re safe,” explains Joan Brooks, a Toronto First Nations woman who is the founder of a grandparent movement in Canada and has started support and grandparents’ rights groups across the country. “It’s a great feeling,” says Joan, who raised her two grandsons, now 15 and 20. But sometimes there are moments that make you want to cry. Joan remembers her husband, Len, who died a year after they got the boys, drawing a diagram for her while he lay in his hospital bed, showing her how to put on the boys’ hockey pads properly so they wouldn’t be ridiculed on the ice.

“Life is all about Fallon now,” says Patrick Smith, 62, as his three-year-old granddaughter sits drawing pictures on the floor. It’s been a heart-wrenching journey for Patrick, who is bringing up Fallon on his own in a co-op apartment in Toronto. “Her eyes kept following me,” he recalls of the moment he first saw her as a baby. Patrick’s daughter, addicted to drugs, was giving up Fallon for adoption. With the encouragement of a Children’s Aid Society worker, Patrick applied for temporary custody and won, then went home with bottles, diapers and five-month-old Fallon.

“I had never changed a diaper in my life,” says Patrick, who has been divorced for many years. “But I got a lot of help from the public health nurse.”

Struggling to care for Fallon and keep his job as a hospital chaplain, “I became overwhelmed.” He returned the little girl to the Children’s Aid Society – and immediately regretted it. This time, he had a hard time getting custody back, but he finally convinced a sympathetic family court judge to give him custody. He’s since given up his job to be home with her and has little social life. Young mothers in his apartment building help out. “My prayer is to stay healthy,” he says. “She’s very secure and happy. She’s given meaning to my life.”

Grandparents who take on the job laugh and cry. Many see their whole lives turned topsy-turvy with the arrival of unexpected little ones. Dorothy and Ron McBride had a farm and jobs near Owen Sound, Ont. With a time-share in the Caribbean, they were looking forward to a comfortable retirement. Then, their developmentally handicapped daughter moved away and left her two- and four-year-old children behind.

Next page: Respite care is rare

Respite care is rate
In Owen Sound, daycare services were inaccessible and expensive. So the couple sold their farm – at a loss – and bought a modest home in Elliott Lake in Northern Ontario. The McBrides are not complaining. “I love Elliott Lake,” says Dorothy. “It’s beautiful here.” Best of all, schools, daycare and other community services for the children, now six and four, are only minutes away. The McBrides even get respite care once a month to give them a break. “I wonder if we will ever go to our time-share again,” says Dorothy. “But I have no regrets. We’re seeing life through the eyes of children once again.”

One thing does worry her: “Ron is in excellent health, but I have problems.” Like many older Canadians caring for their grandchildren, they worry about what will happen if they become ill or die. “Under the law, if we don’t have custody, we can’t designate who their guardians will be,” says Dorothy. “We hope they would go to a nephew of Ron’s and his wife. They adore them.”

When Sylvia Chappell, 54, of Hamilton, was seriously injured in a car accident 10 years ago, soon after taking in her then three-year-old grandson, James, she asked herself, “Why did I get myself into this?” But, she says, “I don’t regret it. We are very close.” James, now 15, has been teased at school. They say, “Your nanny is fat and she walks with a cane.” He replies, “At least I have my nanny.” James sometimes asks, “If something happens to you, will I go into foster care?” She reassures him that he would go to live with his aunt and uncle.

Recently, James’s mother called to speak to him, but he refused. “They think they can leave them with you for 10 or 12 years, then just come back into the picture,” says Sylvia. One piece of advice all the grandparent support groups offer is to seek custody of the child once they are in your care. But it can be expensive. Sheila and Hermann say it cost them $8,000 in legal fees, but if even one of the child’s parents fight in court, costs can nudge or exceed $25,000.

Lack of custody problematic
Without legal custody, getting the child a medical card, enrolling him in school or travelling with him can be problematic. Or, as Gordon and Annette Bruce of Alberta discovered, you can simply lose the child. The couple took in their troubled daughter and her child, Alicia, who was three at the time. Their daughter eventually moved out, leaving Alicia. When their daughter was diagnosed with a mental condition, they asked a lawyer if they should seek custody. “He advised us to stick with the status quo,” says Annette.

It was advice they consequently regret accepting because when she was 12, Alicia did not return after a weekend visit to her mother. “We did not see her for another eight months,” says Annette. Now, she only comes for visits. It was particularly hard on Gordon, who is visually impaired. “Alicia spent a lot of time with me working in the garden,” says Gordon. “I did everything with her, counting and ABCs. Sometimes, she called me papa. We invested nine years raising her. It was quite devastating when we lost her. It’s a shame when children are born to parents who are too needy themselves to give them what they need and deserve.”

Next page: Farewell, financial freedom

Bernice McQuigge, who lives in Maple Ridge, B.C., outside Vancouver, has been caring for her granddaughter, Randi, since she was a three-pound preemie. Last year, Bernice’s daughter wanted Randi, now 14, back. Bernice, who has legal custody, told her daughter absolutely not.

“I had to go to court to fight for Randi,” she says. “The court said that, with my daughter’s past history, they were not willing to give the child back to her.” Randi’s mother had initially bribed her daughter by suggesting that Randi shouldn’t have to go to bed at 9:30 p.m. and that she should have more privileges. “Now though,” says Bernice, “Randi is beginning to realize it was a good decision to stay with me.”  

Bernice has three other children of her own. “I have been parenting for 40 years,” she says wryly. “When Randi asks me why I don’t treat her like her cousins,” says Bernice, “I say, ‘Randi, I can’t. I’m your parent.’”

Until now, the B.C. government was by far the most generous of the provinces in providing financial aid. Bernice, who is on a disability pension, was receiving $350 a month for Randi. As of April 2002, however, the new cost-cutting Liberal government cut off all aid to grandparents who have legal custody of their grandchildren. “It’s going to be hard,” says Bernice. (Some provinces give no subsidies at all while Ontario provides about $214 a month for the first child, $174 for additional children.)

Bernice is not alone. Whether it’s diapers or designer jeans, these grandparents feel the pinch. Brenda Trnka, 52, of Winnipeg, says her husband, Oliver, 55, had hoped to take early retirement this year from his job with Manitoba Hydro. But now with grandsons Sean, 10, and Chad, 8, to support, “He’s going to try and hold off for two more years. It costs us a fortune,” says Brenda. And they get no financial aid from the Manitoba government.

Farewell, financial freedom
Brenda and Oliver have the boys as a result of “a failed marriage where neither parent was able to take care of the children,” she says. It was only when they were applying for custody of Sean that they learned their daughter-in-law was expecting a second child. Once Oliver saw the new baby at the hospital, he said, “Well, we have to have him too.” And, says Brenda, “When we take them bowling, people our age say, ‘Sure glad it’s you and not me!’ I say, you do what you have to do for your grandchildren. I would never even dream of giving them up now, that’s for sure.”

And that’s the bind. Many grandparents find it impossible to say no. Yet they talk wistfully of what they’re missing out on – especially seeing their contemporaries free to travel or simply take it easy. “I would like to do the little things,” says Joan Brooks, “going out to lunch, taking a nap.” She was in her glory, she says, when she went to visit with three of her other grandchildren recently. “I was just happy, spending time with them. When diapers had to be changed, I didn’t have to do it!”