Latino Grandparent Caregivers Relieve the Foster Care System

Latino Grandparent Caregivers Relieve the Foster Care System

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Last of 3 articles. Click to read Parts 1 and 2.

SAN GABRIEL, Calif. -- An accident landed seven of Rosie Cardenas’ grandchildren on her doorstep -- and she hasn’t looked back since.

Along with her husband, Jerry, Cardenas raised them when their daughter, a single mother, was seriously injured in a car accident. The Cardenases determined their daughter was unable to care for her children and officially adopted all but the oldest of the seven children.

“I never thought I’d be raising kids again. Everyone said are you sure you want to raise kids again?” Cardenas said. “I prayed on it. The lord sacrificed for us; why can’t I sacrifice for them? I couldn’t leave these kids.”

Cardenas said she was concerned the children would end up in the foster care system had she not taken them in.

“If I didn’t take them in the court would’ve had to find people to foster them,” Cardenas said. “Why? When grandma and grandpa can take the kids right away.”

Child services and researchers said extended family usually takes over the role of raising children when a parent is unable to. Many times it’s grandparents.

Unsung Heroes

According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2008 there were 6.4 million grandparents living in households with grandchildren under age 18, and 2.6 million of them had primary responsibility for parenting their grandchildren.

“Every child deserves a caring family; it’s important to keep family connections,” said Neil Zanville, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

“When it’s safe, that’s the paradox here. When it’s necessary we have to remove children, and frequently it’s the grandparents who contact the agency to report that parents aren’t doing an adequate job of raising their grandchildren.”

In fact, it was Cardenas who decided to take the children away from their mother, who was on drugs at the time of the accident.

The Los Angeles childrens and family department, Zanville said, serves about 35,000 children, of whom 7,600 are with relatives or nonrelative extended family members.

The numbers would be larger if it weren’t for grandparents taking over the role of raising their children’s children, said Madelyn Gordon, executive director of Grandparents as Parents.

In the county, relatives are raising about 500,000 children, Gordon said, but her organization has found that only 17,000 are part of the child welfare system.

“Caring for these kids, prevents them from going into the foster care system,” Gordon said. “They’re unsung heroes.”

The organization, based in L.A.’s Canoga Park area, was founded in 1987 with the mission of helping relative caregivers in Los Angeles County. They describe themselves as a “one-stop shop” offering free community-based programs and services to caregivers, 90 percent of them being grandparents.

“Just think of the financial impact that has on the foster care system,” Gordon said. “At the same time a lot of these kids have got emotional and physical problems, and there are few resources.”

At the Fringes of Poverty

Gordon said a lot of these grandparent caregivers live right above the poverty level and on the fringe. Census figures show that half of grandparents who are primary caregivers for children live below the poverty line.

In addition to concerns about household income many worry about what will become of the kids if they die.

Gordon stressed, “That is an area we work hard in. We tell them, ‘Look realistically who can you have
that will look after the children if you become ill?’”

She recalled, “We had three kids whose grandmother died, and none of the kids went into foster care. Other family members took them into their homes.”

Families play a pivotal role in keeping children out of the family care system, said Michael Gray, division chief for kinship services at the county’s children and family services department.

“It’s important to have a supportive structure,” Gray said. “The way people see it the child welfare system and the department of child welfare services is responsible for keeping families stable and caregivers uplifted. But a majority of all that rests in the community.”

Churches, schools and community agencies all play a role in raising children, Gray said.
People are also distrustful of the welfare system.

“From their perspective all we try to do is simply take children from families and that’s not true,” Gray said. “We don’t want to erroneously break up a family. My program’s focus is really to empower families.”

The kinship program receives support from California’s Department of Social Services, which provided them seed money to build and expand assistance to families and keep kids from entering the child welfare system, Gray said.

Christmas – And a Meal Every Night

Jeremy Cardenas, 25, knows he could have easily ended up in the foster care system. His favorite memory of growing up with his grandparents were the holidays, especially Christmas.
The Christmas before their mother’s car accident in 1997, they didn’t have any gifts at their Arcadia home, Jeremy said.

“So me, my brothers and sisters rolled up toys we already had with newspapers,” he said. “But when we had Christmas with our grandparents we were spoiled.”

Jeremy paused and added, “It’s also the little things, like a home cooked meal each and every night.”
Although he admits the transition was hard – a new school, new home, new friends – Jeremy said his siblings are better off for it.

“My mom’s decision making wasn’t always the greatest. It’s kind of hard to bring up that part of my life,” Jeremy said. “It’s a lesson that you learn and carry on for the rest of your life for the better.”

Jeremy is currently baseball coach at San Marino High School, in addition to attending Pasadena City College, were he hopes to transfer out to study liberal arts at a university.

He doesn’t have a relationship with his father other than the “brief appearances” he made when he was younger.

“When I think of a father I think of my grandfather right away,” Jeremy said. “He taught me how to work and how to be a man, and my grandmother taught me about love and dedication to myself. She filled the role a mother should’ve.”

This is the last of three articles in a series by Adolfo Flores a staff writer at the Pasadena News Star. He wrote this article under a MetLife Foundation Journalists Fellowship in conjunction with New America Media (NAM) and the Gerontological Society of America. A Spanish-language version of this story will appear in El Nuevo Sol, as well as NAM.