When Grandparents Step In for Parents

It’s mid-way through your shift at work. You’re on a break, and you get a call from your grandson’s school. He is exhibiting some challenging behavior issues and needs to be picked up. Though you are his primary caregiver, you’ve got a couple hours to go before your work day ends, so you call his mother to see if she can help. She is due to have a baby any day and tells you that she can’t get to his school. His aunt also helps raise him, but she can’t leave work. You will face disciplinary action if you leave your job because, as his grandmother, you don’t qualify for protected time off under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). You want to support your grandson, but you also don’t want to put your job in jeopardy. You’re stuck.

This isn’t a hypothetical situation; it’s a real story from one of the members I work with through EdNavigator, and it’s reality for many employed caregivers across the country. In this case, the grandmother—we’ll call her Dawn—happened to be sitting across from me when she got the call from her grandson’s school. In this moment, Dawn had someone available to problem-solve with, so that’s what we did.

After some discussion, Dawn decided to call the school back to ask whether her grandson could stay a little longer, until her shift ended. The school’s dean agreed. Then Dawn got another call—this time, from her grandson’s mother, who had figured out a way to get to school to pick him up. The immediate situation was resolved, but the longer term challenges remained.

Dawn’s experience highlights the unique challenges facing a large—but frequently invisible—group of caregivers. At EdNavigator, we work with many grandparents, aunts, uncles, and non-relative caregivers who have not been legally recognized for a variety of reasons. Close to 3 million U.S. grandparents are raising their grandchildren. There is a “disproportionately high rate of poverty among grandparents raising grandchildren,” and they can struggle with complex feelings about their family dynamics.

This last point is especially true for Dawn. She works hard to maintain a regular schedule for her grandson, but she also adjusts to his mother’s schedule when she wants him stay with her. Changes in his bedtime and afterschool routines often cause issues when he returns home, and several empty promises from his mom have caused behavior issues at school. Dawn has tried to talk with his mother to improve his experiences with her, but things haven’t changed. Dawn wants her grandson to spend time with his mother, but they both struggle with the inconsistency that accompanies his visits to her house.

To add to her challenges, Dawn is raising her grandson in a public school system that is drastically different than the one she grew up in. Many New Orleans schools that existed long before Hurricane Katrina are now rebranded, reconfigured, or just gone. When established institutions are replaced by new charter schools, this can lead to confusion and mistrust. For Dawn, she is most frustrated by what she believes are “too lenient” discipline policies.

Moreover, Dawn is a primary caregiver who doesn’t have legal guardian status, and this means she can run into a whole host of challenges when faced with critical decisions that affect her grandson’s well-being. Accessing resources in school, getting time off to address medical or behavioral issues (as we’ve seen), or even signing permission slips can open up all kinds of thorny dilemmas when a student’s true caregiver—the person they come home to most, if not all, nights—is not their guardian in the eyes of the law.

Dawn experienced significant stress over getting special education services for her grandson because she wasn’t sure if she would be legally allowed to make those decisions for him. Fortunately, her grandson’s school honored her decision-making ability (which was also authorized by his mother). But caregivers like Dawn can be entirely dedicated to giving their grandchildren (or their nieces and nephews, or their non-relative-but-just-as-loved children) the best in life, and still run into roadblocks, especially when their right to information and resources is left to a school’s discretion, rather than protected by law.

While there are challenges facing non-traditional caregivers, there are also opportunities. Because she is a veteran employee, Dawn works consistent hours and can, therefore, provide a stable schedule for her grandson. She is off work every Monday, so this is when she schedules doctor’s appointments or meetings with her grandson’s school psychologist. She has a wide social network and a lot of ‘grandmother savvy,’ through which she finds and takes advantage of many community offerings. Last summer, Dawn found a camp that would take her grandson in early because she saw a flyer in her neighborhood, visited the church where it was being held, and realized she knew the pastor. He agreed to extend the before-care hours for Dawn’s grandson so she could get to work on time.

And of course, Dawn knows what it takes to raise a child because she’s done it before. She prioritizes academic work at home because she knows how important it is. She sets clear boundaries because she knows her grandson needs them. And she will do anything to help her grandson be successful.

Dawn is wise and patient. She is strong, and she is capable. She is also fortunate because her grandson’s school ultimately supported her in making decisions that affect his ability to be successful. But it’s time for all of us in education to start really seeing non-traditional caregivers—their unique strengths, and also their challenges. Let’s consider how to better support them in our schools and communities.

To start, schools can use family-centered language such as “primary caregiver” versus just “parent” to help all caregivers feel welcomed. Schools can also be clear on how they will work with non-parent caregivers—what permissions will be required in order to share student information, for example—and, more importantly, communicate those systems to families more proactively. Finally, schools can work with all caregivers to ensure decision-making responsibilities are delegated in ways that best serve their students, while also maintaining student privacy.

Undoubtedly, all of this can put schools in a complicated position. But I think attention to this issue is well-deserved. By proactively building systems of communication and authorization to establish how schools will work with non-traditional caregivers, schools can ultimately keep their students safe, while also empowering families of every shape. With that, we can move closer to giving all caregivers and the children they love access to the resources and opportunities they deserve.

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