Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Recession takes its toll on kinship caregivers

'Grandfamilies' Come Under Pressure
Tough Economy Adds to the Strains on Americans Raising Grandchildren

Lagnado, Lucette. Wall Street Journal, April 4, 2009.

PORT JERVIS, N.Y. -- Until she lost her job last September, Wendy Nocar denied nothing to her granddaughter, Summer, whom she has raised since she was a baby. The blonde 6-year-old was plied with Barbie dolls, clothes, ballet lessons, trips to the mall, and outings to Broadway shows and her favorite restaurant, Red Lobster.

These days, Ms. Nocar, 57, unable to land a job interview much less a job, is worried about stocking the refrigerator and paying her mortgage. She is also fearful of being unable to support Summer, who she says was born addicted to heroin, and who has been in her custody since infancy.

Summer is anxious about her grandmother's situation. "We don't have a lot of money," says the first-grader, whose pictures adorn the cluttered three-bedroom house she inhabits with her grandmother, two cats, a dog and a rabbit named Whiskers. "We need a lot of money; she has to get a job," Summer adds.

Summer Nocar sits on her bedroom floor looking at her shells with her grandmother, Wendy Nocar, in Port Jervis, N.Y.

"She seems to understand a lot more than children do her age," Ms. Nocar says.

Today, more and more children are being raised by their grandparents. These grandparents provide a crucial safety net, allowing children whose parents can't provide for them to remain in families, instead of winding up as wards of the state. But as the recession hits "grandfamilies," that safety net is under stress.

The unemployment rate for older workers is lower than the overall rate. But once they become unemployed, older workers find it harder to land a job and they tend to remain out of work longer than younger workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for those 55 and over has been climbing significantly in recent months; in March, it rose to 6.2% -- the highest it has been since September, 1949, according the bureau.

At the same time, the number of grandfamilies has been growing. In 1970, about 3% of all children under 18 lived in households headed by a grandparent. By 2007, 4.7 million kids -- or 6.5% of American children -- were living in households headed by a grandparent, according to Census Bureau data. This shift was driven by a variety of factors, including more parents hit by drug use, AIDS or cancer, and the large numbers of single parents who, if struck by tragedy, leave children behind.

Not all of these grandparents are sole caregivers, says Kenneth Bryson, a director at Generations United, a Washington nonprofit, "but most are making important contributions," providing "substantial care so that the parents can work or go to school."

Nationwide, about 20% of grandparents or other relatives get grants to help care for children they are raising. Amounts vary; in New York, it averages about $5,000 a year, says Gerard Wallace, an attorney who heads New York's Kinship Navigator program, which helps grandparent caregivers. By contrast, the average cost to the state of one child in non-specialized foster care is $22,000 per year in New York, he says.

If one million children being raised by relatives were to enter foster care, it would cost taxpayers more than $6.5 billion each year, according to a 2005 report by Generations United.

Agencies that work with grandparents are seeing a spike in requests for emergency assistance -- to help pay rent and heating bills or buy winter clothes for children. Ms. Nocar, for instance, is one of many Americans facing both the loss of a job and steep payments for a second mortgage.

A $1 million fund in Washington state to help grandparents is running out of money because of the crush of demand. In Tucson, Ariz., a similar, $147,000 fund that was supposed to last through June was so rapidly depleted in recent months, that it's now gone. In Tampa and Chicago, agencies are helping caregivers who bought homes, but now can't keep up with mortgage payments and risk having no place to live with their grandchildren.

"This is the worst we've ever seen," says Hilari Hauptman, who administers Washington state's fund, established five years ago. "We're hearing of cases where grandfathers who are the families' breadwinner are losing their jobs, of grandmothers who are raising multiple grandchildren and are close to losing their homes to foreclosures."

Allen Bringard, an Everett, Wash., carpet-layer raising a 2-year-old granddaughter and a 15-year-old grandson, came to the attention of Ms. Hauptman's fund in December, as he faced an eviction notice on his apartment. Until recently, Mr. Bringard, 56, had his own small business installing carpets, and he and his wife lived in relative comfort. But as the economy stalled last year and fewer homes were being built, he found himself with less work. "People aren't buying carpets, and that was my trade," he says.

In September, one of his clients failed to pay -- which meant Mr. Bringard couldn't pay the rent. He became "desperate," he says, when he was served with eviction papers, and authorities said they might have to temporarily remove his granddaughter, Shelby, until his situation improved, saying she had to be in a stable home.

"She is the joy of our heart -- losing her would have been like having your own child ripped out of your hands," he says. An emergency grant from the Washington fund enabled him to hold on to the apartment for now. Mr. Bringard says he recently lost his part-time job and is looking for work again.

Losing Summer is Ms. Nocar's greatest fear. She has legal custody, but worries that if she can't find a job -- and can't support Summer -- authorities could take the child away and place her in foster care. "They ask in court, 'how are you going to support this kid?'" she says. "A parent can lose a job and be homeless and still take their child with them, but not a grandparent."

David Jolly, commissioner of the Department of Social Services in Orange County, N.Y., where Ms. Nocar lives, says that while he understands the worries of grandparents, it wouldn't be the practice of his county "to do a removal based on an economic situation." In considering a child's situation, he says "money isn't nearly as important as love."

Summer has lived with Ms. Nocar since she was a month old. Her father is Ms. Nocar's son. Summer was born addicted to heroin, according to papers filed by Ms. Nocar with Family Court in Orange County, in Goshen, N.Y. Ms. Nocar recalls going to see the baby every day in the neo-natal intensive care unit and falling in love with her. State authorities prepared to find the baby a foster home or put her up for adoption.

Ms. Nocar didn't want to lose the child to strangers. In October 2002, she brought Summer home in a bassinet.

"What are you going to do with a baby?" she recalls her own mother saying. "Raise her," she replied.

It was rough going at first, to be a middle-aged, single parent, caring for an infant. At 51, Ms. Nocar found herself getting up in the middle of the night for feedings.

Summer was a delicate child, prone to colds and ear infections. She has also been diagnosed with severe attention deficit disorder, her grandmother says. Medication could possibly help, but Ms. Nocar is adamant: "She has had enough drugs," she says.

In the years when Ms. Nocar was prospering, she liked spoiling the little girl. For Summer's fifth birthday party, she hired a magician. She took her to the mall to shop for "girlie girl" clothes.

At her most recent job, she worked as an engineer designing containers for the food-service industry. Ms. Nocar says she earned about $38,000 a year, enough to get by in her small town. At Christmas, they took a theater outing to New York City, about two hours from home. At least once a week, they went out to dinner. Summer loved to chat up the waitresses of Red Lobster, a restaurant she nicknamed the "Big Crab."

Now, Ms. Nocar can't afford to take her out to eat. She doesn't buy one of Summer's favorite treats -- packages of string cheese -- because of the cost. Summer asked to see the Broadway version of "The Little Mermaid" for Christmas, since she was used to going to shows; her grandmother had to say no. Ms. Nocar's friends now bring over large bags of used clothing.

Ms. Nocar says her granddaughter likes rummaging through the bags and picking out items. But Summer understands the difference between new and hand-me-downs. Asked how her life has changed since her grandmother stopped working, she replies:

"I like to get stuff of my own, like clothes. Now I get stuff from other people."

Why, she is asked?

"You know why," Summer replies. "Because we are poor."

Ms. Nocar has been struggling to find work in a tough market. She doesn't have a formal engineering degree, so she is expanding the kinds of jobs she'll pursue. Her Work Search Record, the form that she must fill out to get unemployment benefits, lists dozens of jobs she has sought -- at employment agencies, consulting firms, temp agencies, Home Depot.

In the column marked "Result of Contact," she scribbles "No jobs," or "Not hiring" or "No response." After sending out more than 55 feelers on-line, by phone or in person, she says she has yet to be called to an interview.

The fact that she is in her late 50s makes her worry whether she is employable. "Is there going to be any use for me?" she says.

Many older workers who lose their jobs drop out of the work force, believing their efforts are hopeless. The number of people 55 and older classified by the federal government as "discouraged" -- meaning they've given up looking for work because they don't think there are any jobs for them -- nearly tripled from December 2007 to December 2008, to 154,000 from 53,000, according to the AARP Public Policy Institute.

Ms. Nocar is contemplating running a day-care center out of her home. Or perhaps selling knick-knacks at a flea market; her house is filled with boxes of items she hopes to sell, including furniture. She's also considering training in the medical field, one of the few sectors with jobs in the area. She has been seeking positions that pay close to what she once made, but says, "if it comes down to it, I will take any job."

Her priority is to keep up her mortgage payments. Ms. Nocar says she bought the house -- built in the 1890s -- in the early 1990s for about $90,000 and had a mortgage payment of about $800 to $900 a month. She decided to refinance to get a lower interest rate but also borrowed money against the house to pay off debts.

Two years ago, Ms. Nocar says, Countrywide Financial approached her with the possibility of getting more cash by taking out another mortgage. She says she resisted, at first. "I didn't want that second mortgage, but they kept calling; they kept telling me 'you could afford it.'[nbsp ]"

"What if I lose my job?" She recalls asking them. She says that she was reassured she had plenty of credit.

A spokesman for Countrywide, which was acquired last year by Bank of America Corp., couldn't discuss specifics but said the loan was made appropriately. "The loan is made based on the current employment. We can't predict the economy, we can't predict whether she will have a job at some point in the future," he said.

Ms. Nocar says she took out a second mortgage in 2007, obtaining about $35,000 in cash. The first mortgage required her to pay 5.875% interest, the second mortgage carried an interest rate of 10.625%.

Her payment now -- of about $1,600 a month -- has been tough to manage since losing her job. Her unemployment, of about $1,450 a month, doesn't cover it, but she has a boarder, which helps. And she receives a grant of $411 from the state to help care for Summer.

Ms. Nocar says she doesn't qualify for food stamps or Medicaid, although Summer is covered by Medicaid. Ms. Nocar says she was forced to drop her own health coverage this month, because she could no longer afford it, and is struggling to pay her utility bill. Though she says she is usually even-keeled, in recent days she has broken down and cried twice. "I am scared now," she says.

One option is to make Summer a ward of the state and become a foster grandparent. Under that arrangement, Summer could still live at home, and the state would pay benefits, upwards of $600 a month, and possibly more because of her struggles with attention deficit disorder, according to Mr. Wallace, of New York's Kinship Navigator program.

But there are drawbacks. Ms. Nocar worries that authorities would be constantly checking on her.

Ms. Nocar meets regularly with other grandparents who are raising grandchildren, as part of a support program of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension, an educational nonprofit in Middletown, N.Y.

And she has turned to her own mother, who is 79, for help. Ms. Nocar's mom, Sally Goldberg, has moved next door. Late last year, she gave her daughter a bond worth $8,400 that Ms. Nocar has since cashed and used to pay household expenses. The great-grandmother also helps support Summer in other ways -- she pays for ballet lessons, buys her the string cheese she loves, and recently purchased a bedroom set for the little girl. "We have a good time together, Summer and I," she says.

As for her own daughter, Ms. Goldberg says: "She is my heroine."

Summer tells her grandmother she has a solution for their recent woes: "I want you to get a lot of money."

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