NSFN support group reaches out to custodial grandparents

“When you’re thrown into this position ... you just don’t know what to do, every day is a struggle to put your feet down on the floor and continue on,” she said. “It was very difficult to know where to look ... and you feel like you’re in it all alone.”

A vital comfort to Sharon was Parents Raising Grandchildren in Harmony, a Stoneham-based group that offers a variety of support for custodial grandparents. Having been with that group since it was formed five years ago, Sharon said confidential peer discussion is a big part of what they do — there’s a lot of shared experience and it’s important to talk with others who can relate.

“These meetings are crucial,” she said. “Sometimes I go and I don’t even talk. Sometimes I go and I don’t shut up.”

The group has roughly a dozen members and meets twice monthly through the North Suburban Family Network, a program under the Hallmark Health system that provides a wide variety of family education and supports for parents in the Stoneham region. For those who aren’t familiar, Hallmark Health is a nonprofit that operates several medical facilities in the northern suburbs, including local centers for cancer, MRIs and oncology.

A key player in the start-up of the support group is Family Network program manager, Kathy Harlow, who said she got the idea after seeing that many children in the programs were being dropped off by their grandparents. She said the initial concept was helping grandparents who are assisting their children with childrearing, but added that quickly changed to serving custodial grandparents, who formed the bulk of the group. There’s also one granduncle as well, she said.

In addition to providing a forum for peer support, she said the group regularly arranges guest speakers who can provide guidance on issues specific to custodial grandparents, and advice on how to reach programs that are designed for help parents like Sharon.

“I think we’ve provided them with a kind of one stop shopping to connect them not only to their peers, but the services that are out there,” she said.

In the big picture, Harlow said custodial grandparents are becoming increasingly common, citing AARP statistics from 2008 that indicated 67,781 children in Massachusetts living under such arrangements.

Harlow said the issue is such that the state recently appointed a commission on the matter, which is traveling across the state to compile more information on the challenges facing custodial grandparents.

In speaking with Sharon and Carol — another member of the group — both said there’s room for improvement on the state and federal supports, many of which are calibrated with young families in mind.

That issue was raised by Carol, who is 65 and has been raising her granddaughter for 4 years due to a mental illness in the family. She’s been advised that grandparents in her situation often “burn out” because they don’t receive the support that parents or even foster parents would in similar situations, saying it appears the current system doesn’t account for the love grandparents provide.

As for Sharon, she said raising three children was a huge burden while living on a fixed income, and the fact that she owns a home was often used against her when seeking assistance.

“You’re up the creek without a paddle most times,” she said. “There’s very little that’s offered to grandparents raising grandchildren.”

Similarly, Harlow said it hasn’t always been easy to keep the support group going. It was originally funded by an elderly services nonprofit, but those funds were lost a couple of years ago because the person group was too small and didn’t have enough people over 60. Since then, Harlow has drawn heavily on donations and in-kind support to keep it going.

Regardless, Harlow isn’t discouraged and plans to keep writing grants to keep the group afloat.
“This is a strong group that’s doing good work and I feel we deserve the money,” she said.

Sharon, who recently saw one of her grandchildren reunited with her mother and hopes the other two may follow suit in the near future, was in complete agreement.

“If it wasn’t for Kathy and her group five years ago, I can’t tell you where I’d be today,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

Parents Raising Grandchildren in Harmony meets twice monthly, and those who are interested may call 781-662-2722.

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