When Kathy Allen of Lexington assumed custody of her 4- and 5-year-old granddaughters because her son and his girlfriend were addicted to drugs, she didn’t know where to turn.
“At the time they were basically living out of their car,” she said. “They’d been evicted from every place they had lived.”
Allen found some of the help and support she needed from Grandparents as Parents of Kentucky (gapofky.org). That was a decade ago, and she has been a regular at its annual conference ever since.
“Every year I go I learn something that has helped me deal with situations at home that nobody else could help me with,” Allen said.
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This year’s GAP conference is March 16 at the Clarion Hotel, 1950 Newtown Pike. To attend, call the Fayette County Cooperative Extension office, (859) 257-5582. Walk-up registration is available at 8 a.m. that day. The cost is $5.
The conference includes workshops with lawyers and other professionals on such topics as “navigating the legal path to guardianship, custody and adoption” and “discipline and the traumatized child.” A state trooper will discuss drug abuse trends. A therapist will talk about “childhood anxiety and how to respond.”
The featured speaker is Joan Callandar Dingle, whose personal experience led her to become a trainer and advocate for relative caregivers. She is the author of two books: “Raising Children of Alcoholics and Drug Users” and “Second Time Around.”
There also will be a discussion of support groups. A new support group is being formed for metro Lexington grandparents March 27. It will meet at 6:30 p.m. the fourth Monday of each month at the Fayette County Cooperative Extension office, 11140 Harry Sykes Way. To attend, call Kita Carver at (859) 381-3190.
Allen, who has been divorced since 1988, took on the challenge of raising her granddaughters because she didn’t have much choice. She wasn’t ready, either financially or emotionally. But it helped to realize she wasn’t alone. “My story is the same as a lot of grandparents now,” she said.
About 7.2 million grandparents now have grandchildren younger than 18 living with them, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 2.6 million of them are responsible for their grandchildren’s basic needs. The median income of those caretaking grandparents is $49,700, and more than 547,000 of them have incomes below the poverty line.
About 53,000 Kentucky children are now cared for by grandparents or other relatives, according to Kentucky Youth Advocates.
Allen formally adopted her grandchildren in 2015. One reason was financial: she is older than 65 and receives Social Security, so adopting her granddaughters made them eligible for benefits she needed to support the family. “There’s very little help from the state,” she said.
But the challenges involve much more than money.
“Visitation and having interaction with the parents, whether or not that should be allowed or not, that was a big issue,” Allen said. “It would be like everything was going to be OK and then all of the sudden things would fall apart.”
Other issues included dealing with school rules and bureaucracy, and meeting the special emotional needs of her granddaughters, now almost 15 and 16. “The big thing I learned from the conference was, yes, I’m right, they do have to be dealt with differently,” Allen said.
“Most of the time they have not been able to spend a lot of time with either parent because it just isn’t safe,” she said. “But they both still deeply love and care about them. So it’s really a heartache for them the whole time. It takes a lot of extra care. There’s not just doctors and dentists appointments, but there’s therapists to go to.”
Allen said a daughter — her granddaughters’ aunt — has been a big help.
“Going to soccer games and school events, it’s not as embarrassing for the grandkids to go with someone closer to their parents’ age than me,” she said.
Allen recommends that other grandparents in her situation attend the GAP conference, find a support group and seek therapy for themselves as well as their grandchildren.
“I don’t feel like I’ve been able to be a grandparent to them like I have to my other grandchildren, because I had to step into the parent role,” she said. “And so they miss out on having a grandparent that can spoil them. And I miss out on grandchildren that I’ve not had an opportunity to treat as grandchildren.”