In Native American communities, the role of grandparent has always been not only a cherished one, but also one of privilege. As part of their tradition, grandparents are expected to serve as important models and communicators of customs, culture and language necessary for their community’s vitality. This includes discipline, morals, and position or connectiveness to the community. Yet over the years, the extent to which they are involved has changed, sometimes creating a role from which one once got much enjoyment to one in which grandparents are overwhelmed because of the extent to which they are involved, more recently due to the absence of the child’s own parents. Never before have we seen grandparents involved at the levels they are today, including with children’s education, healthcare, and socialization. But some of this is out of necessity, an effort to fill a void left by their own children.
Who are the Grandparents and Why Are Their Numbers Growing?
Let’s take a look at the how the numbers have shifted over the years. According to the most recent GrandFacts, a fact sheet from Grandfamilies.org, there are over 26,000 grandparents in the State of New Mexico, who are responsible for grandchildren who live with them. Of this number, over 18% are American Indian or Alaska Native. Of the total, 60% are over the age of 60, 57% are still in the workforce, 21% are in living in poverty and 28% are not married. Many believe that these statistics may even be much larger due to the failure of grandparents to report their status. In fact, of all groups represented, according to the 2000 census, grandparents under the age of 60, women, and those of African American, Pacific Islander, and Native American/Alaska Native ethnicity, were most likely to be responsible for grandchildren.
Many factors can contribute to grandparents who take on the parental role of grandchildren. Circumstantial conditions include, unemployment, divorce, child abuse, incarceration, labor migration, disability, death, mental instability, substance abuse, and military deployment. Growth is happening in some of these areas due to the state of affairs in the world, lack of jobs or social services, as well as natural occurrences.
Because of their historical role in their community, many Native American grandparents are more challenged than other ethnic populations. This is because many care for their grandchildren more on an ad hoc basis, and do not seek out legal adoption, foster care, or legal guardianship, all which would serve to provide them with access to services that could make their lives easier. Additionally, there is the shame associated with the problems of their own children that have placed them in this position. This is particularly true in the all-knowing smaller communities. There is also the hope they hold that their own children’s situations will normalize, negating any need for help in the first place. And there is even the desire, due to their own children’s circumstances, that grandchildren remain in grandparent care for the children’s own well-being.
- Cultural Understanding
It has been the experience of many grandparents that those in a position to assist, often lack in cultural understanding. In surveys, Native Americans conveyed the need for helpers to know that not all they serve are alike. They also expressed concern that most service providers are not aware of the ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act), nor do they take the time to become knowledgeable about state and tribal services, as well as Native traditions and customs.
Without a formal arrangement in place, many grandparents rely on emergency services to provide for their grandchildren in their care, and completely give no attention to preventative care.
Without legal proof of custody, grandparents can’t even do the simplest of actions in ensuring the proper education of their grandchildren. These include enrolling the child in the school, receiving educational records, or attending educational meetings. This can result in being caught up in the bureaucracy of paperwork, resulting in the child missing large amounts of educational and social time at school.Additionally, because of age, and the speed of technology, it is difficult for grandparents to serve as sufficient educators in the home when the child needs help with homework and other assignments.
The sudden and unexpected care of a child can create great hardship for a grandparent caretaker, particularly if they do not seek legal custody or guardianship of the child. Financial issues can include the cost of education, housing, and medical care. Add to this, that some grandparents may need to alter their work hours so as to better accommodate those they care for, resulting in reduced pay and benefits.
Many grandparents live in small, rural communities with lack of access to services for not only those children they are raising, but also for themselves, including socialization that will provide them with community and relief from their day to day challenges.
Although the challenges can be huge, there are also many benefits that can come out of a relationship in which a child is being raised by a grandparent. First and foremost, grandparents serve as a connection to a larger extended family and cultural customs. These family connections include aunts, uncles, cousins, and in some cases, even siblings. These children are also less likely to be moved around within the system, than can often result in traumatization and feelings of being less loved. Additionally, children who have had strong connections in their families and communities, particularly if grandparents have obtained legal status for their care, have demonstrated good school performance, school retention, and emotional well-being.
How Can We Support Grandparents as Caretakers?
Because this population has such unique problems, which is only amplified by their own growing personal needs, it is important to address their needs and concerns in a timely, sensitive, and targeted manner. In addition to their own personal problems such as work and health, grandparents raising grandchildren have unique needs.
- Childcare Relief
Unless other family members live close by, particularly in rural communities, grandparents will be without relief to take care of their own needs. Additionally, older grandparents do not have the same stamina as their younger child-rearing peers.
Due to remote geographical locations at times, as well as the vast age difference between them and other parents, grandparent caretakers have a need for connection and sharing of their concerns. The shame associated with their position may isolate them from their child-rearing “peers” who may be more educated, attuned with new child-rearing technique, and more connected technologically and socially. As a result, they sometimes feel that they don’t fit in and are unwelcome at events in which all children are participating.
- Resources for Grandparents
National Indian Council on Aging (NICOA) provides online information for Native American grandparents raising grandchildren.
Outcomes, Inc. is a resource for support groups, information and referral, and quarterly workshops on topics such as Medicaid, guardianship, and activities for children.
Advocacy, Inc. provides guardianship and adoption legal services, assistance in obtaining health, financial, and food support.
505-266-3166 or 1-866-257-5320 (toll free)
Pegasus Legal Services, Inc and Law Access New Mexico—Kinship Guardianship Legal Helpline Program is a legal hotline with information, advice, and assistance for kinship guardianship cases, and direct legal representation in uncontested cases.
Grandfamilies.org Online Database to find out if your state has an education consent law.
Grandparents enrolled in Early Head Start home-visiting programs and center-based Head Start programs provide mental health consultations to assist in addressing behavioral issues the caretakers may encounter. Some tribal communities have developed their own early learning programs based on these models. These models can be particularly sensitive to working with Medicine men, pastors, elders, priests, and other redeemed healers within the tribal community.
Children eligible for Medicaid can take advantage of Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment Program (EPSDT), which includes preventive screening and testing, check-ups on a regular basis, and follow-up care.
The Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) covers uninsured children at poverty levels too high to qualify for Medicaid and too low to afford private health insurance.