PHILADELPHIA, Mar. 12, 2012 – Dozens of grandparents, aunts, uncles and more crowded into Bright Hope Baptist Church to discuss and discover the rewards, risks and realities of parenting younger relatives, an event made possible by state Sens. Anthony H. Williams and Shirley Kitchen.
The two senators sponsored the event for Philadelphia residents whose family circumstances have led these school-aged children to be in their care, often termed “kinship care.”
“Raising a child is a rewarding lifelong commitment,” Williams told the audience. “Choosing to raise a relative’s child for the good of that child’s welfare and the collective family is immensely challenging, but incredibly admirable.”
In fact, the number of those assuming that challenge is growing, be it due to the difficulties of the economy, incarceration, addiction or other challenges. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, at least 1 in 10 U.S. children is being raised by a grandparent or other relative. And about 1 in 5 grandparents serving as a primary caretaker lives in poverty.
These realities led Williams to introduce Senate Bill 119, the Intergenerational Family Care Act. SB 119 would establish a pilot program to assist kinship care families through targeted housing and daycare assistance as well as provide specially-trained caseworkers to offer support and counseling.
Both senators provided opening remarks, as did Bright Hope’s Rev. Dr. Kevin Johnson, who was raised by his grandparents along with his brother. While the interactive discussion provided more details about the pending legislation, it primarily gave a forum for attendees looking to learn strategies for coping with difficult moments and how to find support among professionals and peers.
Advocates say that many kinship caregivers operate silently because family distress often is at the heart of why children aren’t with their parents, and suffer issues of guilt and embarrassment as a result.
Mary Harden, a Southwest Philadelphia resident raising her 15-year-old niece, is one of the many who came to the workshop in search of answers. Harden has raised the girl since she was four days old, and now is struggling with the challenges of the teen years on top of the anger, resentment and abandonment her niece feels toward her parents.
“I am so grateful to the senators for organizing this discussion,” Harden said. “I felt as though I was the only person experiencing the joys and hardships of raising a family member.”
Nationwide, more than 7 million children live with grandparents, an increase of more than 30 percent within the last 20 years, according to census reports. Yet these statistics do not include the countless uncles, aunts, cousins, older siblings and family friends like Harden, who, despite additional financial burdens, choose to step into that breach when parents walk away or cannot otherwise fulfill their parental responsibilities.
Turning Points for Children, Grands As Parents and the Kinship Care Committee, organizations that provide support for intergenerational caretakers, were event co-sponsors.
Harden said she had an eye-opening experience. She connected with Grands As Parents, the Philadelphia Department of Human Services, Community Behavioral Health and other service providers. And she not only left the workshop with a new network of support systems and activities for her niece, she also snagged information for computer classes so she can learn to text and email to stay more connected with her niece.
Williams has long argued that investment in intergenerational families can have a greater impact on as well as long-run cost savings to the Commonwealth and can be a viable alternative to foster care. Kinship care allows children to grow up in loving and stable homes that put them on the path to becoming responsible citizens.
On average, it costs more than $1,100 every month to care for just one child in foster care, according to the state Department of Public Welfare. Meanwhile, there are nearly 85,000 Pennsylvania grandparents alone raising grandchildren, according to the Children’s Defense Fund.
“I give thanks every day for the unconditional love provided by our unsung heroes who quietly step up to raise a second family long after their nests are empty,” Williams said. “We need to do everything we can to support them and relieve the burdens that this places on our older citizens, many of whom are on fixed incomes and struggling to make ends meet even without this added responsibility.”
This session was the second in a series of panel discussions that came as an outgrowth of last spring’s Helping Hands Intergenerational Resource and Information Conference.
The next session will be held on June 7 from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. at Miracle Temple of Christ Church, 26th and Tasker streets.
For additional information about SB 119 or to access kinship care resources, call (215) 492-2980 or visit www.senatoranthonyhwilliams.com.
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