Due in part to factors such as substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, death of a parent, child abuse and neglect, teen pregnancy, unemployment, incarceration, divorce, mental health crisis, family violence and poverty, the number of grandparents becoming primary providers for their grandchildren is escalating. On April 25, the South Austin Coalition (SAC) held a community meeting at the Senior Satellite Center (5071 W. Congress Pkwy.) to address the phenomenon.

“I first became aware of the epidemic in 2003 when I was looking at some of the statistics both locally and nationally regarding grandparents raising their grandchildren,” said Zakiyyah Wahid, SAC senior advocate.” I felt we needed to address this issue, especially since so many people are affected.”

Wahid obtained sponsorship from SAC as well as the Grandparent Leadership Project, CPS, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Austin Family Community. The SAC satellite center is the result, an attempt to give a voice to the steadily increasing numbers of seniors who have to delay their retirements to raise school-age children.

Nationally, nearly 2.4 million grandparents report they have primary responsibility for the care of these grandchildren. In Chicago, 41,328 grandparents have primary responsibility of their grandchildren, and in the Austin community, the figure is 3,305.

“It certainly puts grandparents in a difficult situation of having to relate to and keep up with much younger children,” said Wahid. “It will not be easy, but we want them to know that there are programs in place to assist them in this process.”

According to Cory Foster, local office administrator of the Illinois Dept. of Children and Family Services, there are programs in place to help grandparents pay for food, travel fare and even clothing if necessary if they have difficulty supporting their grandchildren.

“Ideally we want to preserve the family structure in the home because it takes less of an emotional toll on a child to live with a grandparent than be placed in foster care,” said Foster. “We want them to know that these resources to assist with food and clothing are available through DCFS; they only need to obtain an application from [the satellite center] or at the DCFS office [408 N. Laramie].”

What if these grandparents are considered ineligible because of their income or retirement savings. Wouldn’t that hinder their ability to obtain assistance?

Foster said it certainly could have an effect but not a significant one. Basically, if the need is there, they should be served, he said, although if grandparents are serious about obtaining assistance in this fashion, they are strongly encouraged to ask around, as historically contradictory information exists quite frequently in dealing with government assistance.

James Deanes, special assistant to CPS Board President Michael Scott, spoke about creating more programs on the West Side that allow grandparents to interface with one another as well as mentor not only the children they must raise, but those in the community as well.

“Marshall High School has a wonderful mentoring program that is an example of what we can do everywhere,” said Deanes. “I have eight grandchildren myself, and while I don’t see myself raising them, it is important that I prepare myself if that time ever comes. I need to form friendships with other parents and groups and begin to form that working relationship with the children in our area.”

This is a start, advocates says, but certainly more programs need to be put in place to not only provide assistance to grandparents who already have enough issues facing them due to aging and the deterioration of their natural abilities, but also to better assist the parents themselves so that issues such as poverty or substance abuse does not completely eliminate their ability to parent.

For more information on programs available to grandparents raising children, contact SAC at 773/287-4570.