Melinda Earlywine, a real estate agent in Lawrenceburg, has another title: grandmother with permanent custody of her 6-year-old grandson, Jacob.
”He has added so much to our lives,“ said Earlywine, 52. ”He's a very intelligent child and well-behaved. We were lucky with all those things.“
Because of addictions, incarceration, death and abandonment, more and more of the responsibility for rearing grandchildren has fallen solely on grandparents in recent years.
In Kentucky, for example, 57,141 children live in grandparent-headed households, according to information gathered by the AARP Foundation and several child-welfare organizations. That's nearly 6 percent of all children in the state. An additional 12,294, or 1.2 percent, live in households headed by other relatives.
And the grandparents who are forgoing the rest or leisure time they had anticipated after raising their own children cross all boundaries. Eighty-two percent are white, 15 percent African-American, and 1 percent Hispanic.
Seventy-four percent of those grandparents are younger than 60, and 22 percent live in poverty.
Those numbers are in line with the rest of the nation, and they are the reason the Bluegrass Region Grandparents & Relatives as Parents conference has sold out in each of its five years of existence.
Now in its sixth year, the conference, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. March 20, will have speakers and organizations to address the concerns of grandparents and other relatives who have accepted the role of parent again. The conference will be at the Holiday Inn North, 1950 Newtown Pike in Lexington, and it is open not only to non-traditional parents, but also to professionals, students and clergy. The cost is $5 for grandparents and relatives, $30 for professionals. The ticket price includes a continental breakfast and lunch.
Attorneys recruited by Carl Devine, a family law lawyer, will be on hand for free 30-minute consultations about guardianship, custody, financial support and other legal issues that non-biological parents might face.
Participants interested in a consultation must fill out a form before the conference. Call (859) 257-5582 for the forms and for more information.
Joe Kurth, director of 4-H youth programs at the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and a non-traditional parent, is the keynote speaker.
Other speakers include Fayette Family Court judges Jo Ann Wise and Lucinda Masterton, and Dr. Otto Kaak of the UK Department of Psychiatry, Pediatrics and Social Work. Among topics they will address are ways to relieve stress, recognizing substance abuse in teenagers, parenting abused children, and legal issues concerning adoption and custody.
Earlywine has attended the conferences and is now a member of the committee that presents them. She said there will be ”tons of information“ that she knew little about when she took custody of her grandson in 2003.
Her life changed dramatically after that. Earlywine had to quit work because her job in medical office management didn't lend itself to child-rearing.
”At the time, I just felt it would be best to stay home to give him stability,“ she said.
She cleaned homes when her grandson started pre-school, and she studied for her real estate license. There are a lot more child-care and support programs available now than when she worked two jobs as a single mother, she said.
And yet, more needs to be done, especially in the area of grandparents' rights.
”Kentucky law is just not prepared for all this,“ Earlywine said of the new family dynamic. ”The court systems are not the same from county to county, judge to judge. We need that continuity. You can go in one court system in one county and the judge could be totally against the grandparent,“ she said.
The good thing, though, is that there are a lot of people and organizations available to help.
And a lot of them will be at that conference.