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GAIL WHITE Older generation picks up child-rearing slack



Published: Fri, August 24, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



At ages 63 and 60, respectively, Wayne and Diane McCoy of Warren expected to spend their retirement years relaxing. After rearing three children, they planned on enjoying their freedom and visiting grandchildren.

Instead, they are rearing grandchildren.

Two of Wayne and Diane's children lead healthy productive lives with families of their own. One child delved into substance abuse and has left two children in her wake.

Repeated attempts at rehabilitation provided no benefit. Fearful for the children, Wayne and Diane gained custody.

"You do it because you love those kids," Diane says.

Sharon Kilpatrick, executive director of Senior Rights and Advocacy of Trumbull County explains, "There are a thousand stories for why parents don't raise their own children ... but an overriding factor, we have found, is substance abuse."

"We have been in touch with about 225 families providing kinship care," Sharon continues. "We believe there are several thousand in Trumbull County."

National issue: Grandparents or relatives rearing children has become a national concern.

"This is probably, right now, one of the largest hidden issues in our country," Sharon explains. "It is estimated that millions of children are being raised by grandparents in the United States."

"These caregivers undertake this because they love the children," Sharon continues. "But they have very special issues."

A group called the Kinship Association provides caregivers assistance and support.

"Issues of concern that caregivers repeat over and over are respite care and legal issues," Sharon says.

Being older, many caregivers need a break from small children.

"Many of these children have physical and emotional issues," Sharon explains. "You just can't call the neighbor next door to baby-sit."

The health of the caregiver is another concern.

Diane recently fell off a ladder. She sits in a wheelchair with her arm and leg in a cast. Her accident prompts discussion among the group attending the Trumbull County Kinship Association meeting.

"We don't know if we are going to be here tomorrow," she shares, looking at her husband. "We don't know if we will see them graduate. We have made plans with our other children to take care of the kids if we can't."

Linda Wheeler of Levittsburg bursts into tears. At 57, she has no backup plan for her two grandchildren.

Many in the group express the same fear -- an aunt suffering from the debilitating autoimmune disease, Sjogrens Syndrome, with custody of a niece and nephew; a grandmother with multiple sclerosis rearing two small grandchildren.

Yet, their concerns lie more with the welfare of the children.

Many of these caregivers have experienced the pain of watching children return to "rehabilitated" parents, only to be subjected to neglect and abuse when the parents re-enter the world of substance abuse.

"To fight for custody, grandparents have to pay the legal fees," Sharon explains. "Parents fighting for custody have free legal services. We have had grandparents spend literally tens of thousands of dollars to gain custody of their grandchildren."

"Of course," Sharon concedes, "the goal is for children to be reunited with their parents. But kids have gone through terrible, terrible things because grandparents could not keep custody."

What's planned: Along with emotional support, Kinship Association is planning a march on Columbus in October with hopes of creating legislative changes involving legal rights and respite care.

"On our journey, we're going to make it better for other children," Diane says with determination.

XFor more information on Kinship Association, call (330) 675-2485 in Trumbull County and (330) 746-3069 in Mahoning County.

gwhite@vindy.com




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