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More grandparents are taking on a changing role

by STEPHEN DI BENEDETTO The (Crystal Lake) Northwest Herald on November 15, 2013 10:35 AM

CRYSTAL LAKE, Ill. — As a grandmother, Martina Rodriguez never imagined she would spend her mornings making breakfast for her grandchildren before school or helping them with their homework after school.

But, at 59 years old, Rodriguez has found herself in the same position as a growing number of grandparents across the country. In her household, Rodriguez acts as mom to her three grandchildren, who were separated from Rodriguez’s daughter.

Every day, Rodriguez spends personal time with her grandchildren. She helps prepare their meals, assists them with schoolwork and juggles her evening work hours to make it happen.

Rodriguez even sought assistance and learned to manage a computer through a grandparent support group that started last year at Carpentersville-based District 300.

“Kids are different now,” Rodriguez said through a District 300 translator. “It’s very important to be a part of any program that gives you more knowledge and to help grandparents understand their grandchildren and be a part of the world they are living in now.”

In the United States, 5.4 million children younger than age 18 live in a grandparent-headed household, according to U.S. Census data. More than 211,900 children in Illinois live with a grandparent, state figures show.

Rodriguez’s three grandchildren — Heidi Casiano Soriano, Eduardo Lopez Soriano and Ailton Lopez — all have excelled academically, while Rodriguez continues to adapt to the modern ways her grandchildren use daily.

Technology aside, grandparents who raise grandchildren often have to overcome cultural, economic and legal hurdles to be an active participant in their grandchild’s life, said Peggy O’Connor, program coordinator for grandparents raising grandchildren at the University of Illinois Extension in Lake and McHenry counties.

O’Connor, who also raised her grandson, said “the epidemic” of grandparents filling the parental role has increased dramatically over the past 25 years, while lawmakers and the court system have failed to address the needs of grandparents.

Grandparents often are caring for children because of substance abuse, neglect, divorce or financial issues with the child’s parents, O’Connor said. Many grandparents provide this care without legal guardianship, as the court system favors the birth parents and their rights to raise their children, she said.

Grandparents thrust into the parenting role often use their fixed retirement income to provide food, clothing and basic needs for their grandchildren, while roughly a third qualify for government assistance to help with the care, O’Connor said.

In her work role, O’Connor has visited numerous community groups to connect the estimated 1,300 “grandfamilies” in McHenry County with resources and supplies that better address their caregiving needs.

“At a time when they should be going to Hawaii taking cruises, they are taking care of children and helping them through serious issues,” O’Connor said. “Where the parents have failed, the grandparents are stepping in and giving them unconditional love.”

At District 300, Joan McGarry created a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren last year after witnessing a grandfather express concerns about his grandchild’s future and not knowing how to provide support.

The “Grandparents Raising Grandchildren” support group links the district’s grandparents with community groups and provides a meeting place for them to voice concerns with other grandparents, McGarry said.

“There are huge challenges grandparents face,” McGarry said.

“Part of the frustration for us is the need we see to get information out.”

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