JUNE 20, 2007

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OSU assists state’s outreach to grandparents raising grandchildren

Photo of OSU professor Whitney Brosi.
Brosi

Just two states have higher proportions of grandparents raising their grandchildren than Oklahoma, emblematic of a startling national trend of close relatives having to substitute for birth parents as primary caregivers. The implications for children are unclear, but Oklahoma and other states have already reconsidered guardianship rights and are reevaluating the delivery of family services.

Research and outreach at Oklahoma State University, including a recent survey of grandparents across Oklahoma, is focused on helping the state ensure quality of services for non-traditional caregivers and children.

The survey was administered by Whitney Brosi, assistant professor in OSU’s human development and family science department, with funding from the Utah-based Borchard Foundation Center on Law and Aging, whose education, research and service mission is to improve quality of life for elderly people. Brosi developed the questionnaire with Richard Ingham, an Oklahoma Department of Human Services attorney who dedicated his career to helping the aged access legal and social services.

Ingham died during the survey’s distribution, but many of the more than 40,000 Oklahoma households where grandparents are primary caregivers to children were sampled.

“We wanted to learn if Oklahoma grandparents know about the various programs that are offered to them and their grandchildren, and if they are aware, what are the difficulties they may have with access,” Brosi said. “The focus of our study is to find barriers that keep grandparents and other relative caregivers from using the resources available to them.”

The grandparents and other relative caregivers who participated in the survey answered questions and were given the opportunity to tell their stories. Most indicated that they don’t have a legal connection with the children they are raising, and they are providing care until the parents are able to resume the role of caregiver.

“Many grandparents think taking care of their grandchildren is a temporary situation, but in many cases they become the permanent caregiver,” Brosi said.

Photo of OSU specialist Deborah Richardson.
Richardson

Duration of care is typically four to five times longer than grandparents anticipate, according to information obtained in the most recent national census. In OSU’s survey, respondents often indicated they felt obligated to become caregivers as an alternative to the children entering into foster care. And although the obligation is clear, many grandparents are proud to be able to offer their grandchildren stability in the face of difficulty, according to Brosi.

Deborah Richardson, parenting assistant extension specialist at OSU, said it is important for grandparents to consider their own health in addition to the child’s well-being when faced with becoming a caregiver, a role that can be physically and emotionally straining.

“Separation from a parent can have psychological and emotional outcomes for the child,” Richardson said. “It’s important for children to feel secure and cared for, especially when such a situation is necessary.

“The children might become depressed and have behavioral problems. Consequently, they particularly need emotional as well as physical support from their grandparents,” she said.

OSU’s Gerontology Institute and materials it distributes, such as “Through the Eyes of a Grandchild: Grandparents Raising Grandchildren,” recommend that caregivers build on existing bonds of trust, help the grandchildren express their feelings, provide security and control in their lives, and encourage relationships with peers and siblings.

Brosi and her research team hope to provide grandparents and other relative caregivers information about existing opportunities and programs and help the state improve their delivery. Policy makers and family service professionals understand that improving well-being and resource access will ease transitions and benefit all affected by the trend, including the children, according to Brosi.

“Many state agencies are working hard to provide needed resources to both grandparents and children and help people get connected with resources valuable for their situation,” she said.

Oklahoma Human Services provides free legal assistance, counseling and support groups, inexpensive housing and funds for food and clothing in addition to various programs designed to assist grandparents raising dependents.

In 2005, the Oklahoma Senate passed Bill 733, proposed by Daisy Lawler, allowing grandparents to participate in legal and custody proceedings. Previously, Oklahoma did not guarantee grandparents any guardianship rights, even after they had served as caregivers for long periods.

Brosi said the state increasingly is recognizing how much grandparents must do when called upon to help their families by providing care for children. She is currently assessing responses to the survey and hopes to publish the findings in the coming months.

“This project has given us so much information about all the different living situations and different family settings around us,” Brosi said. “More than ever, grandparents are an extremely valuable part of Oklahoma families, and they make a difference in our society.”

Contact: Gary Shutt, OSU, (405) 744-6260