Annelise McGuigan, 11, is an honor student who loves to dance and has won awards for community service. But her life might easily have turned out otherwise if her grandmother, Patricia Merz, had not stepped in to raise her.
Annelise's father has multiple problems, including substance abuse, rage and mental health issues, and has spent time in jail. So has her mother, whose two other children are also being raised by relatives. Despite the financial, emotional and legal difficulties involved, Merz doesn't regret her decision to take in her granddaughter when she was an infant.
"It's wonderful and horrible all at once," Merz, 53, of Granville, said of the joys and struggles of raising Annelise. "All of a sudden you're a mom again and your whole life plan has changed. But I wouldn't give her up for anything."
About 400,000 children in New York state are being raised by grandparents. Often it's because a parent has died, been sent to jail or has a mental or physical illness.
"Grandparents have always been involved with raising grandchildren but we're seeing more of a formal trend," said Giovana Montalvo-Baer, director of the New York City Department for the Aging's Grandparent Resource Center.
The legal, financial and emotional issues they face are many.
"You are fighting with the parents or with the state or with both," said attorney Gerard Wallace, co-chair of the New York State KinCare Coalition, which was created by AARP New York and has about 80 member organizations, and director of the New York State Kinship Navigator, a statewide program that provides information and resources to kinship caregivers. "You need to give these families a complete, parallel set of rights like any other family."
The problems faced by Merz as a single grandparent who is not seeking legal custody, are typical. She lost her job managing a lingerie store last year and now works as a salesperson. Because she only has temporary custody, she is not eligible to apply for most forms of assistance for Annelise. There have also been problems registering Annelise in school. And she faces the specter that either of Annelise's parents may seek to reclaim her.
For Merz, as for many families, the most serious problems are financial.
Statewide, at least 23 percent of grandparent caregivers live in poverty, according to the New York City Department for the Aging. Many more find that salaries and retirement funds are quickly depleted with an unplanned addition. The state's Non-Parent Caregiver Grant provides up to $500 a month for one child and $200 for each additional child. Legal guardianship of the child is not required for full-time caregivers to apply; financial eligibility is based on the child's income. Information on how to apply is available online at the New York State Kinship Navigator website (scroll down to Financial Assistance/Public Assistance).
New York's Office of Children & Family Services has published "Having a Voice and a Choice: A Handbook for Relatives Raising Children" that is available in English (Pub. 5080) and Spanish (Pub. 5080-S).
Families should also visit the AARP Foundation's Benefits QuickLINK tool, which helps find the benefits for which they are eligible.
Only about 8 percent of families eligible for the grant are receiving it, largely because of a lack of awareness, said Beth Finkel, AARP New York's manager of state programs and services and co-chair of the New York State KinCare Coalition. The coalition is funded by the AARP Foundation through a grant from the New York Life Foundation. The coalition recently launched a campaign to educate kin caregivers about the grant and other benefits and support groups that may be available to them.
Compared with the $6,000 a year for the non-parent grants, it costs the state roughly $22,000 to put a child in foster care. And the grant money buys what most experts agree is the best home for a child—one with family.
"Research shows better outcomes for children in kinship families than in traditional foster care," said Renee Benson, executive director of Caregivers Support Services in Albany, an agency of the Catholic Charities of Albany, which offers case management, referrals and support groups for grandparents and other relatives and the children they raise. "Our society cannot afford the alternative option of placing these children in the care of the state or counties."
"These people are doing a service for society, and we should be helping them, not creating roadblocks," Finkel said. "For the most part, people thrive best with family."
Jacqueline Rivkin is a freelance writer living in New York.