March 17, 2010

USA: Grandparents often forced to become parents, again

. JACKSONVILLE, Florida / Florida Times-Union / Opinion / March 17, 2010 By Tonyaa Weathersbee It's easy to be inspired by Communities in Schools. For the past two decades, this organization has spearheaded initiatives to stop youths from being so weighed down by the baggage in their lives until they see school as part of that burden, instead of as an opportunity. It tries to do that through initiatives such as Team Up, which provides enrichment activities for students after school; Achievers for Life, which lends academic help to struggling sixth-graders; and Take Stock in Children, which provides scholarships and mentors to high school students. Duncan Jackson, however, is also inspiring. Jackson is grandfather to 9-year-old Jason Jackson. When Jason was only 2, his mother's estranged boyfriend killed himself and her, and shot Jason in the head. The child survived, but the shooting robbed him of full mobility on the right side of his body. Jackson, however, refused to let a limp rob the boy of his confidence. So he enrolled him in Jump Start Strings, a program offered by Communities in Schools and the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra which has, according to The Times-Union, not only taught Jason how to play the violin, but how to build his esteem. They focused on what he has, rather than on what he's lost. Yet, it took someone like Jackson to believe in his grandson enough to find a resource like Jump Start Strings. And increasingly, it seems that more grandparents are going to have to muster the moxie to do what Jackson did. That's because grandparents rearing grandchildren is a trend that isn't going away. Census figures show that as of 2005, 5.7 million children were living with grandparents. That's 8 percent of all children in the United States, and an increase of 6 million children since 1990. That's happening for a number of reasons. In Jackson's case, the murder of Jason's mother and an absent father left him as the primary caretaker. But a more disturbing reason behind this trend is the drug trade and the mass incarceration that it has produced. According to research by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, on any given day, more than 1.5 million children have a parent serving time in a state or federal prison. That population has swelled because of tougher sentences for nonviolent drug offenses; offenses that are often rooted in addiction. Between 1995 and 2005, the number of incarcerated women increased by 57 percent, compared to 34 percent for men. On top of that, 75 percent of imprisoned women are mothers. And more than half of all prisoners, both federal and state, are parents of children younger than 18. Many of those children wind up living with grandparents. Then there's abuse and neglect. In many cases, outright abandonment puts grandparents in charge of protecting their grandchildren from the demons that claimed their children. That's why it's good that Communities in Schools exists. Too many times, when the conversation turns to at-risk youths, people dismiss such programs as a handout for irresponsible parents who want outsiders to do everything for them. But the truth is that many children who benefit from Communities in Schools, and programs like it, aren't even being reared by their parents. Many are being reared by responsible and mature grandparents who care deeply about them, but who don't have access to resources. Resources like, in Jason's case, after-school violin lessons. That's why, as Communities in Schools celebrates its 20th anniversary, it's important to remember grandparents like Jackson. Grandparents who see its programs as more than busy work, but as a way to give at least one generation a chance to live up to its potential, and not be dragged down by pathology. [rc] Tonyaa Weathersbee is a columnist and a member of the Times-Union's Editorial Board. Her columns have earned numerous state and national journalism awards, as well as several community awards, since appearing on the Times-Union's opinion pages in 1998. Tonyaa has also traveled throughout the Caribbean and Latin America to do journalistic work. A resident of Historic Springfield, Tonyaa is a graduate of Raines High School and the University of Florida. E-Mail: © Copyright The Florida Times-Union