1 in 50 U.S. children is raised in “grandfamilies” – grandparents without parents. The challenges faced by these families are hidden below the public radar.

Grandparents increasingly play a key role in the lives of their grandchildren, as our recent study of U.S. families shows. But some of the most vulnerable in this group are failing to receive the childrearing support that other similarly at-risk families receive.

Between 2001 and 2012, the U.S. experienced a 30 percent increase in the proportion of children living with their parents and grandparents, in what are referred to as three-generation households. Much of this increase can be attributed to the Great Recession, which led families to double up in order to conserve resources. In 2012, a total of 10 per cent of U.S. children lived in a household with their grandparents, with 8 per cent living in three-generation households. Clearly, then, social policies to support the elderly also help millions of children, a fact that has implications when policymakers consider modifying the social welfare safety net for older people.

“The challenge to policy makers, practitioners and researchers is to throw light on this form of childrearing and ensure that the supports put in place for other vulnerable families are both available and accessed by this often hidden group.”

Grandparents who are raising their grandchildren with no parent in the household are particularly far off the policy radar. Such families are often referred to as “grandfamilies.” One in 50 U.S. children is being reared in such a family, but the figure almost doubles for black children. President Obama himself was raised by his grandparents in Hawaii for part of his childhood.

U.S. grandfamilies are, on average, economically disadvantaged. Nearly a third live below the federal poverty line, and almost another third have incomes less than 200 per cent of the poverty level., Grandparents in such families are less likely than parents in other family structures to be employed and are less likely to be married. We see strikingly high levels of health problems in these families – not only in the grandparents but often in the mental health of the children, likely reflecting the misfortune they have often experienced in their lives.

Despite their needs, grandfamilies are usually ineligible for the higher levels of financial help available to foster parents and often don’t receive even the more modest welfare benefits to which they are entitled. Indeed, our research has found that only 12 per cent of U.S. grandfamilies were receiving cash assistance, despite the fact that many more should be eligible for such payments.

Grandfamilies often exist outside the reach of social services, chiefly because children typically came to live with their grandparents via an informal arrangement, rather than through the involvement of a social service agency. We found that almost half of our sample of children who were being raised by grandparents entered into the arrangement because the parent voluntarily gave up the child. Only a small proportion did so because a social welfare agency got involved.

As a result, many grandparents raising their grandchildren don’t have legal custody, meaning that they may lack the legal authority to make medical or school decisions for the child. They may also face repeated court challenges if the parent tries to reclaim the child. This legal ambiguity can undermine both the security and parental authority of the grandparents.

At the same time, our interviews with grandfamilies identified numerous strengths. Grandparents are mature and experienced parents, having raised children already. They know the children’s parents and often try to see the best in them, despite their mistakes. Many grandparents say that raising their grandchildren gives them a purpose in life, keeping them young and connected. Children themselves express a great deal of warmth and appreciation for the grandparents who raise them and keep them safe.

The challenge, then, to policy makers, practitioners and researchers is to throw light on this form of childrearing and ensure that the supports put in place for other vulnerable families are both available to and accessed by this often hidden group.

Practice Implications

Recognize that grandfamilies have unique needs and therefore need programming tailored to them.

References

 Dunifon RE, Ziol-Guest KM & Kopko K (2014), Grandparent coresidence and family well-being: Implications for research and policy, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 654.1