Recognizing The Impact of Grandfamilies

For a big part of my childhood, I lived with my grandparents. My mother’s parents were my ‘surrogate’ parents in my mother’s absence[and in her presence]. While she was pursuing her college degrees, and establishing herself as an independent and newly single parent, my grandparents were there as her loving and totally willing backup. In fact, they were quite eager to do so. I was their first-born grandchild of their first-born child. The general thought was that I would also be a welcome source of help to my grandparents as they were also helping my mother and me, too. We were a grandfamily.

As a child, one doesn’t realize the impact that raising the child of an adult child has on a grandparent. It is a safe environment, for most children, but there are still concerns and worries that both child and grandfamily have to reconcile with. Besides worrying about whether your parent is going to be okay without you, or wondering whether the parent still loves you, transitions such as these can also bring up worries about whether the child is somehow responsible for the parent or parents’ absence.

Grandparents’ love and reassurance can erase these worries, as did my grandparents for me. There was incredible pride felt by them to have me there, and I always knew that I was wanted. My mother’s absence was an issue for me, but we always communicated over the telephone, via letters, and visits throughout the year. My mother was up North and I was in the South. Every school break or holiday, I traveled by air back and forth. I was a ‘frequent flyer’ before the age of 12, usually with an assigned airline employee as my companion.

I had grown so close to my grandparents, and connected to the school community, that even when my mother had begun her career as an educator and purchased her first co-op, I didn’t want to leave my grandparents. I knew that they needed me, and I was also used to being royally spoiled. All I had to do was ask, and I got what I wanted- well almost everything. My needs were already being met. For myself, either way, an only child, I couldn’t imagine life being much better anywhere else.

After my parents were divorced, my relationship with my father was distant until I was 17, and about to graduate from high school. In his absence, my grandfather was my father figure, which was a little weird looking back. I called him ‘daddy’, as did my mother, naturally. Except for having blue eyes, I looked like him and many people, at first encounter thought he was actually my father. I didn’t mind; I adored him so.

While parental substance use seems to top the list of circumstances that place children in the care of grandparents, my situation was far from that. In fact, when I was a child, this was practically unheard of in families. Military deployment, incarceration or mental and/or physical illness are also other reasons that children come to live with their grandparents. Whatever the cause, grandparents do step in at critical times to care for their grandchildren. The perception of children in the care of their grandparents is often characterized by a sad or tragic backstory. In my case, my grandparents were caring for me to support the successful career pursuits of my  mother and ensure my own healthy development, as well.

man in blue polo shirt

No matter the backstory, grandparents who become primary caregivers for their grandchildren, do so with a pure sense of love for both the child[-ren] and parent at the core. That is the most important takeaway regarding perspectives on grandfamilies.  It is estimated that over 7.9 million children in the U.S. live with a relative who is head of the household. Here are a few more statistics on grandfamilies:

  • Over 6 million of these children live with grandparents, and another 1.8 million live with other relatives such as aunts or uncles
  • About 2.7 million children are being raised by a grandparent or other relative or close family friend and don’t have a parent living in the household.
  • 139,004 children are in the legal custody of the child welfare system with relatives providing the care, representing almost 1/3 of all children in foster care.
  • The percentage of children in foster care with relatives has increased from 24% in 2008 to 32% in 2018.
  • For every child in foster care with a relative providing the care, there are 19 children outside the system with a relative.

Over 2.4 million grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren, spanning the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and geographic spectrum. Grandfamilies are racially and ethnically diverse. About 58% of children whose grandparents are responsible for them are white, 27% are black/African-American, 3% are American and Alaskan Native, 4% are Asian and 20% are Hispanic or Latinx.

Because of the diversity of families, programs and policies need to be culturally sensitive, language specific and multilingual staff is essential.

Children in grandfamilies are more likely to be poor than those in other families. I guess you can say that I was the exception. We were far from poor, underprivileged or disadvantaged. I was fortunate. I had access to almost everything I could possibly want….except of course,  my mother and father’s uninterrupted physical presence. My parents separated, then divorced, and the adjustment period for me was not as significant as it could have been.

I was too young to have bonded deeply with my father before the separation. At that time,  bonding between mother and child was the expected dynamic in families. There was scarcely a murmur of stay at home dads or ‘house-husbands’, either. Men went to work outside of the home. Women were expected to be in the home, thus spending more time with their children. It was my mother who had to make a real adjustment, in order to be able to stand on her own as a single parent and future career woman. My grandparents, the best support system, enabled her to do so, absent much worry about who was caring for her child, in a manner close to the way she would want.

My grandparents were financially secure. My grandfather was a military veteran, a bricklayer and real estate investor. My grandmother was a stay at home woman, who ran a convenience store, while also a landlord. I was an only child and the only child in the home. I was secure, well cared for, well loved and tremendously spoiled. But, that is what grandparents love and want to do, when they are financially able to do so, right?

Statistically, about 30% of children whose grandparents are responsible for them without a parent in the home are living in poverty, as compared to 18% in the general population. Almost half, 48%, of children who lived with a grandmother-only and no parent in the home, lived in poverty in 2012, and of that number, 42% were disproportionately black.

Grandfamilies are all ages. 37% of children living with grandparents are under 6 years old, 34% between the ages of 6 and 11 and 29% are between 12 and 17. About 46% of all grandparents responsible for their grandchildren are age 60 and older, and about 54% are between ages 30 and 59.

Policies and programs designed to support grandfamilies need to be appropriately designed for families of all ages. There is such diversity within the definition of a ‘grandfamily’, that there cannot be any one-size-fits-all framework design of services in place in any system or setting.

Over 55% of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren are in the labor force. Given that most are age 60 and under, childcare and both before and after school activities and structured programming must be considered and planned for these families.

Grandfamilies live together for a long time. I lived with my grandparents from age 5 to about age 17, when leaving for college. Over 60% of grandparents have raised their grandchildren for at least 3 years and about 45% have raised their grandchildren for 5 or more years. I fall into that latter group. Because it is a long term relationship, stable housing, educational access and other services must be developed and delivered with them in mind.

Grandparents often serve as the glue that holds families together.Even if not system-involved, grandparents are, in and of themselves,a strong support system for parents and children in their care. Engaging families is not to be approached as though the caregivers are the actual birth parents alone. They can’t be approached from a perspective of a deficiency model either. These family units are assets to be partnered with and supported by agencies, systems and service providers. They deserve full consideration and appreciation for what they bring to us and the children in their care.

There is tremendous strength in families and possessed by caregivers themselves, to just be able to navigate parenthood a generation after raising their own children. The diversity they represent challenges service providers to seek respectful, responsive and research-based strategies to build relationships that empower them to successfully navigate their daily lives, as individuals and caregivers. Grandfamilies represent reality and intergenerational frameworks acknowledge this by creating inclusive spaces where they are supported and valued, and their needs are addressed as partners in raising healthy and well-adjusted children.  

 The systems with whom grandfamilies engage in their daily lives should be advocates in ensuring  their wellness and help support and train grandfamilies to advocate for themselves. In this period of uncertainty and unforeseen changes in society, it is critical that caregivers are armed with tools and skills to positively parent the children in their care, and help them thrive in spite of the uncertainty. Once again, grandparent head of households are undisputed as the ‘glue’ that holds many families together. The influence they possess and power they wield have kept and continue to keep so many children and youth out of the child welfare system and close to home. 

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected every American in different ways, but it’s stacking unprecedented turmoil on top of already-unique challenges faced by grandparents raising grandchildren, according to this year’s State Of Grandfamilies report released this week by Generations United. Read the full report.



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