If You Love Somebody: Grandparents Raising Kids

For years, Hollywood and ads have portrayed families as a nuclear unit. But the US is changing. Meet members of two “grandfamilies,” where love is always present.

Casa Grande, Arizona – Inside her home, Agnes Flores is helping her 2-year-old grandson, Louie, count the Matchbox cars he’s lined up methodically along her forearm. The middle children in the family have left for school.

Soon, Anselmo, who is 14 years old and the oldest child in the home, will wake up. The children’s mother, home again after her third drug-related incarceration, will do the same. For the moment, the only activity in the house is Agnes, 62, caring for her grandchild.

“One, two, three….” They count together. They make it into the teens before the toddler loses interest.

Two years ago, just after Louie’s birth, Agnes took the boy in to live with her. She called it “the hardest decision I ever had to make.”

She was already raising four of her daughter’s children, who were ages 8 to 13. The thought of adding a newborn to the mix was beyond daunting. But it was that or having the Arizona state Department of Child Safety, which was called Child Protective Services (CPS), place them in a home, she recalls.

There are more than 70,000 children in Arizona who are being raised by grandparents, according to Children’s Action Alliance, which works on improving the lives of kids and families. In the United States, these grandparents – who are sometimes referred to as “kinship caregivers” are helping to raise nearly 3 million grandchildren, according to 2013 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For nearly 2 million of these youth, a parent is present in the grandparent-led household. For more than 935,750 of these kids, though, a parent is absent.

Some parents have lost jobs and their finances have shrunk. Some are incarcerated. Others are battling addiction. As the Great Recession reminded people, stability at home can disappear.

As of 2013, nearly 2.7 million grandparents stepped up to become parents to kids once again. This is an increase of about 64,100 adults from 2008. In nearly 900,000 of these grandparent-led households, no parent is present and the median income is $35,685, the U.S. Census Bureau reports.

For more than 569,200 grandparents who are caring for their grandchildren, their incomes are so low that they are in poverty. In 2008, about 492,800 of these grandparents reported incomes below the poverty level.

Grandparents are helping one another, offering support, sharing information and talking about community resources. At times, that means, they’re helping answer questions, such as, “Where can I find a crib?” or “How do I navigate this government agency?”

They’re also finding answers from community organizations. Many grandparents have picked up the lobbying baton to let lawmakers know they need supportive policies.

To care for her grandchildren, Agnes gave up her job and essentially became homeless with grandchildren. She eventually found support through Arizona Kinship Support Services.

And she took Louie in. As hard as it was, it would have been more heart wrenching for her to let her flesh and blood become a ward of the state. “He’s part of me,” Agnes says. “I knew I could protect him better than CPS.”

At age 77, Jimmy Mills is raising two granddaughters, ages 8 and 10. He’s had up to nine grandchildren in his house at one time.

His odyssey into grandparent parenting began about 10 years ago when his son went to jail. Mills took in a 3-year-old, as well as 5-year-old twins. After that, he began taking in his daughter’s children because she was dealing with drug use.

“I never did think that this would happen,” Mills says, referring to his late-life re-entrance into parenting.

“When I got saved I thought the Lord would have me going off to other places to spread the word. I never did think He’d have this here for me, to step in for these kids.”

Even with just two kids in his house, Mills struggles to pay bills and provide food and clothes for the girls. Financially, things are tight. Mills admits his age compounds things a bit.

But like Agnes, he believes the children are better off with their family — and that he can provide a better upbringing for them than the state.

“If you love somebody you’ll doing anything to help them,” Mills says. “And I love these kids.”

This story is from Mike Kane, a Seattle-based photojournalist who also shot the video footage. Valerie Vozza, a Seattle-based videographer, edited the video.