Photo: Maria Isabel Garcia, 60, with her two grandkids whom she's been raising for the past four years: Pablo, 8, and Soledad, 4. (Francisco Castro/ La Opinión)
Read in Spanish.
LOS ANGELES--As she was getting ready to retire, Maria Isabel Garcia became a mom, again.
After raising her four kids, she had to start rearing three more, one of whom was only a baby.
One of her daughters became involved in a cycle of drugs, abusive relationships and all sorts of problems that left her incapacitated to take care of her young children.
Garcia, from Jalisco, Mexico, would step in, at first, for short periods while her daughter temporarily got straightened up enough to regain custody of her children. But four years ago, a social worker called Garcia again and told her, without much preamble, "You have to come and get the children or they go to a foster home."
She didn't hesitate.
She Needed a Crib
A few hours after that call, three children, ages 8, 4 and four months, showed up at her door.
The social worker didn't approve her home initially, because Garcia didn't have what a baby needed.
"How was I going to have a crib, if I didn't have any babies," Garcia recounted of one of the issues the social worker raised.
Still, she took them in and managed as best she could.
"It was hard," she admitted of that period of her life. She still worked and had to adjust to being a new mom. "The baby would cry and I didn't know what was wrong with her," she said.
Four years later, these are her children. Garcia officially adopted them two years later, and their mom faded completely out of the picture.
At 60, Garcia is a single mother. Her only help comes from her own mother, who at 92 tries to chip in as best she can.
"My mom helps me so much, I wouldn't be able to do it without her," Garcia said.
"Mama Chole," as the kids call their great-grandmother, forgets things from time to time and doesn't hear all that well, but she manages to wash and fold clothes, do little chores and take care of them (as much as the kids take care of her) when Garcia has to go to a doctor's appointment or do something on her own.
Garcia has no regrets. Even after spending much of her retirement income on them. She added that she didn't get much government help for the kids until nearly a year after they came to her permanently.
She observed, "With your own kids, there's no manual. With grandkids you saw the mistakes you made and you try to remedy them."
"Much energy I don't have, but I do have more patience," she added.
LA’s Epicenter of Grandparent Parents
Garcia shared her story at a Latino grandparents-as-parents meeting at Community Coalition. The group meets twice a month at the organization based in South Los Angeles, epicenter of this problem in the city.
"Sixty percent of the children who are with their grandparents in the city of Los Angeles are in South Central," stated Aaron Gonzalez, a community organizer with the coalition, who helps these new parents, many of whom he meets during his regular visits to the court.
Across the country, about 2.9 million children live with relatives without a parent present, according to the U.S. Census.
AARP "Grandfacts" indicates that in California, 287,996 children live in homes where grandparents are responsible for them (27,250 in Los Angeles County alone). Of those grandparents, almost
Photo: Maria Isabel Garcia with her three kids: Jose, 12, Pablo, 8, and Soledad, 4. Her mother, Soledad Salas, 92, helps her raise them. (Francisco Castro/La Opinión)
half are Latino (47 percent). Then 31 percent are white, 10 percent are African American, 9 percent are Asian, 2 percent are American Indian or Alaska Native.
Of the grandparents Gonzalez helps, those who only speak Spanish or are undocumented are in a precarious situation when faced with this issue. They don't know how to navigate the legal tangles of their new status, may be afraid to deal with authorities and don't know how to access the few resources available to them.
"For them, everything's new," Gonzalez notes. "Many of these grandparents are retired and are low income and they don't know how they will pay for new kids."
While foster parents may get $625 a month for taking care of a child from 0-3 years old, and upwards of $825 a month for an adolescent, said Gonzalez, relative guardians only get about $300 a month from the welfare system--often the only help they are able to secured. If they adopt the children, they may not receive any financial help at all.
According to AARP Grandfacts, 15 percent of grandparents rearing grandkids as their own live under the federal poverty line.
Part of the problem, notes Grandfacts is that "these grandparent . . . are often isolated. They lack information about the range of support services, resources, programs, benefits, laws and policies available to help them successfully fulfill their caregiving role."
This forces many grandparents to dip into their savings, as they put the children's needs first and foremost.
Being a parent for these senior moms and dads is not only a financial commitment, but also an emotional and physical one.
Gonzalez knows of grandparents who miss doctor's appointments, stop going to social functions and even separate from their spouses or partners in order to take care of children.
"Sometimes they neglect themselves physically to take care of the children," Gonzalez said.
This may leave them feeling helpless and depressed.
According to the study, "Health Characteristics of Solo Grandparent Caregivers and Single Parents: A Comparative Profile Using the Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance Survey," presented at the Gerontological Society of America annual conference in New Orleans in November, "undertaking a long-term parental role takes its physical and emotional toll on grandparents, especially when performing their responsibilities without the support of a spouse or significant other."
"Compared to single parents, grandparents have a higher prevalence of physical health problems, such as arthritis. Both parent groups have a high prevalence of lifetime depression.” Even a larger share of grandparents actively smoked and did no recreational physical exercise in the month before the study, which was conducted by Deborah M. Whitley, of Georgia State University’s School of Social Work, and her colleagues.
Benefits to the Children
The payoff, in terms of wellbeing for the kids is notable.
According to Generations United's 2016 "Children Thrive Fact Sheet," compared to children in non-relative care, youngsters with relatives experience increased stability, less likelihood of re-entering the foster-care system after returning to birth parents, greater safety, better behavioral and mental health outcomes, lower potential for running away and more possibility of reporting they “always felt loved.”
And the love between Garcia and her three new children is palpable.
After the meeting between all these Latino grandparents is over at the Community Coalition, Pablo, 8, and Soledad, 4, meet their "mom" at the door and readily hug her and kiss her. She smiles lovingly at them. She knows they are safe.
"I'm happy that they didn't end up, who knows where?" she said.
Francisco Castro, city editor of La Opinión in Los Angeles, wrote this article as the third in a series he developed with support from the Journalists in Aging Fellowships, a program of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America, sponsored by the Silver Century Foundation.
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