Grandfamilies: When the grandchildren come to stay
by Sheila Gardner
It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny Thursday in Gardnerville. Five women and a man are chatting in a comfortable conference room at the Family Support Council discussing diapers, daycare and parent-teacher conferences.
In their 50s and 60s, the participants find themselves in a demographic they never considered as retirement age approached: They are parenting again, raising grandchildren and other young relatives whose biological parents are unable or unfit to care for them.
In Nevada, according to the Census Bureau, nearly 20,000 grandparents report they are responsible for their grandchildren living with them.
Three of those children – Rachel, 10, Britney, 8 and Alison, 5, – are living with their grandparents, Ron and Nancy Santi, in the Johnson Lane area.
Across town, near Douglas High School, Sharon Muldoon recently moved into an apartment with four grandsons – a 14-year-old, two 11-year-olds, and Carlos, who is not yet 2.
“It’s all going to work out,” said Muldoon, who was shopping Tuesday for Carlos at the Friends in Service Helping thrift shop in Gardnerville.
Carlos, his brother and cousins arrived with the clothing on their backs and Muldoon was scrambling to put together four wardrobes for the boys.
These grandparents who thought their child-rearing days were over are facing another round of letters to Santa, Little League, Girls Scouts, slumber parties and puberty.
They are not alone.
Programs such as monthly support groups offered in Gardnerville and Carson City provide information and moral support for the increasing numbers of families identified as “relatives raising relatives.”
Phyllis Trail, 57, of Carson City helps facilitate both groups.
She has been raising her step-nieces for nine years, since the girls were 3 and 6.
“I was unmarried and had no intention of having children,” Trail said of her life before she took custody of her nieces.
“They were in a very bad situation and it took a lot of prayer on my part to figure out I could do this. Would I do it again? It takes a toll, but I would have to,” she said.
For the Santis, there was never any question they would take their granddaughters.
“I got a call from the Carson City Sheriff’s Office at 1:30 in the morning,” said Ron Santi, 58. “My son was at work and his wife had gone to visit a friend in Dayton. She left the girls alone. Rachel wasn’t even 5 and the baby was less than a year old.”
That was in 2001. Over the next few years, the girls went back and forth, but the Santis assumed full custody in 2003.
“All of a sudden, Nancy’s and my life got turned upside down,” Santi said. “It’s been a rollercoaster for us. But I’m from a time when family took care of family.”
Joan Forgatsch of Minden said she didn’t consider adopting her granddaughter until she first glimpsed the tiny 2-pound, 14-ounce baby, born two months prematurely.
“I took a look at this child and thought, ‘How can I give her up?’ I prayed and thought about it.”
That was four years ago, and her little granddaughter is in pre-school.
“It’s not so bad,” she said. “In fact, I am enjoying her in a different way than I did my own daughter as a child. I look at her and just marvel.”
At age 68, Forgatsch said she’s not as quick or agile as she used to be, a shared reality among parenting grandparents.
“On a really bad day, I’ll ask myself, ‘Do you really think you can do it better this time around?'” Forgatsch said.
Santi said at first he blamed himself for his son’s behavior. He said he constantly tried to “fix” his son and former daughter-in-law’s’s problems.
“I kept asking myself, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Finally, a therapist said, ‘Quit blaming yourself,'” he said.
There are host of reasons these families fall apart, experts say. Some birth parents struggle with substance abuse, mental illness, incarceration, economic hardship, divorce, domestic violence, and other challenges.
In the meantime, grandparents and other relatives step in.
“If Nancy and I didn’t do it, they would have ended up in the foster system,” Santi said.
Trail said she falls back on a favorite phrase when the inter-generational challenges appear overwhelming.
“A friend of mine said, ‘I can only take care of one generation at a time,'” Trail recalled.
“We have a reason for what we’re doing,” she said. “We get lost in the minutiae, in the day-to-day. We’re saving lives.”
Navigating ‘the system’
Debbie Posnien, resource specialist at the Family Support Council, said the support group was organized about 18 months ago.
“Grandparents come together and talk about what’s going on in their lives. The most difficulties seem to be with grandparents who are dealing with teenagers. They (grandparents) haven’t been around children for so long. Sometimes, they come in at their wit’s end,” Posnien said.
The support group and other parenting programs are free and childcare is provided.
The Family Support Council, as well as Douglas County Social Services, can steer grandparents toward programs and benefits to which they may be entitled.
For a generation used to pulling its own weight, asking for help can be difficult. But once the reality sets in of the costs involved in raising a new family, the grandparents are more likely to seek assistance.
“Most of them are retired and already on fixed incomes,” Posnien said. “All of a sudden, they have a family to raise.”
Karen Goode, Douglas County social services supervisor, said she’s seen an increase in the number of grandparents seeking help and information.
“We’re definitely seeing more grandparents coming for assistance for everything from school clothes to food,” she said. “About half the time we make sure they are hooked up with all the possible resources. They have to deal with state welfare and programs they never had to look at. Suddenly, they’ve got little ones.”
Santi said he regrets that the girls are missing out on the special grandparent-grandchild bond.
“These children are being deprived of the relationship that most kids have with their grandparents. And my wife and I are getting cheated out of our roles as grandparents,” he said.
Then there is the new addition to their house, the legal battles, and the never-ending efforts to make ends meet.
That’s why Santi was behind efforts to get the support group started.
“It was not my intent to become a full-time parent again,” Santi said. “But it happened and I will make the best of it. My intent was to make these children feel safe and provide some stability in their lives.”
Trail participates in support groups in Carson City and Gardnerville. She hopes more people will attend.
“I went to a prayer meeting at our church and 100 percent of the people there were affected by this one way or another,” she said.
“Here are these people who have worked all their lives, a lot are retired and they’re spending their retirement money – not on trips to Fiji – but on school clothes and doctors’ visits,” Trail said.
Santi said he tries to attend both groups, but scheduling can be difficult.
“It interferes with Girl Scouts,” he said.
— Support groups for grandparents and other relatives raising children:
— Carson Valley group meets from 10-11:30 a.m., fourth Friday of the month at the Family Support Council, 1255 Waterloo, Suite A, Gardnerville. Free childcare . Next meeting, Dec. 29. Information: Debbie Posnien, Family Support Council, 782-8692
— Carson City group meets 6 -7:30 p.m., every third Thursday at the Ross Building, 1001 N. Mountain St., Suite 3E. Free childcare. Next meeting, Dec. 21. Information: Phyllis Trail, 888-9148
— Douglas County Social Services, 782-9825, assistance with medical bills, transitional housing program, food pantry vouchers
— Ron Wood Family Resource Center, Carson City, 884-2269, parenting classes, counseling, general assistance
— Nevada Division of Aging Services, Carson City, 687-4210
— Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, Carson City, 687-4943
— AARP, 888-687-2277 (toll-free), political advocacy on issues for those over 55