Skipped-generation families is what they are sometimes called. In 2001, about one in 100 Canadian grandparents (56,700 in total) were raising grandchildren without the involvement of the children’s mom or dad. That was a 20 percent increase from 1991.
Why? The short answer is drugs, alcohol and mental health problems. Barbara Whittington, a family therapist and professor of social work at the University of Victoria, says substance abuse was a factor in all but five of the 22 families she interviewed in depth for her study of grandmothers caring for grandchildren.
Child welfare authorities can be part of the mix as well. “In 80 percent of the families in our sample, the grandparents got a call from the Ministry of Children and Family Development asking them to step in,” Whittington says.
It was a social worker who first suggested Patrick Smith take in his granddaughter. Fallon, now nine years old, was taken at birth by child protection workers because of her mother’s drug and alcohol problems. Smith, a recovered alcoholic himself, had not been involved in the day-to-day care of his own children. “I didn’t know anything about babies. I’d never even changed a diaper,” he says. “I’d never considered the idea of assuming full responsibility for Fallon.”
Even so, he was developing feelings for his infant granddaughter. “I’d been up to the Children’s Aid office to see her a few times,” says the single grandfather from Toronto. “We kind of got some eye contact going and I could see a lot of my daughter in her. I started to feel attached.”
A social worker said, “You seem healthy enough, Patrick. Why don’t you take care of her?” Smith’s initial response was no, but his daughter also began urging him to take the baby. “She said, ‘Please, Daddy, take her. I’ll go on a program. I’ll get clean and sober and I’ll be able to get her,’” Smith says. “So I took Fallon on a temporary basis, hoping my daughter would go to treatment.”
It didn’t work out that way.
When it finally hit Smith that his daughter was getting worse, not better, he was so crushed he actually had the Children’s Aid take Fallon back. That night was the worst of Smith’s life. “I felt like I’d abandoned her,” he says. “I was mad at myself, disappointed in my daughter. I felt I’d been used. If I’d had a gun in my place, I’d have shot myself. That’s how bad I felt.”
Smith eventually regained custody of Fallon, but only after three months of negotiation, assessments and court appearances.
Whittington says taking responsibility for grandchildren is not a simple choice. “Many grandparents are not sure if they are the right person to be looking after the child, and wonder if they’ll be able to do it,” she says.
Skipped generation grandparents deal with numerous difficulties — unexpected 24/7 child-rearing responsibilities late in life, financial strains and social isolation. But one of the toughest is the growing realization that your adult child is not going to get better and your grandchild is now your permanent responsibility.
Putting things on hold
When Michaud first took in Jaden and Austin, she had to put many things on hold, including a relatively new business venture, a small company offering life skills training to adults. “That was hard,” she says. “Finally I had found something I loved to do and things were ticking along. Now I had to decide whether to give the business up and look after the kids.”
Caring for Jaden and Austin quickly proved to be even more of a handful than the Michauds had anticipated. Many children in skipped generation families have behaviour and health problems, related either to their parent’s substance abuse or unstable care in their early years.