Casey measure aims to help grandparents stepping in to take care of kids

Juanita Cox, 67,  of North Philadelphia took over the care of her four grandchildren six years ago. (Annette John-Hall/WHYY)

Juanita Cox, 67, of North Philadelphia took over the care of her four grandchildren six years ago. (Annette John-Hall/WHYY)

Juanita Cox didn’t expect to become a parent in her 60s. But, six years ago, she took her grandchildren — now ages 14, 12, 7 and 5 — into her North Philadelphia home.

“My son and kids’ mother were on drugs,” Cox explained. “The mom was considered an unfit parent because she left them at home by themselves — it was all on the news and everything. So. under those circumstances, I did not want them to go to foster care.”

A federal measure now offers support to Cox and other grandparents in her situation. The Supporting Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Act, signed last week into law by President Donald Trump, calls for establishing an advisory committee made up of federal agencies to map out available resources for grandparents. The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging; and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the committee chair.

Casey was spurred to act by the opioid epidemic. According to his office, more than 100,000 children in Pennsylvania are being raised by grandparents and other relatives. That number is expected to rise as opioid abuse continues, robbing children of parents and guardians.

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Casey introduced the bill last year after listening to grandparents testify on why they need easy access to information for available resources during committee hearing. He then hosted a series of roundtable meetings with Pennsylvania grandparents to discuss the bill.

“This is the kind of public health crisis that you may not see in a 100 years, so there’s an urgency about this issue,” he said. “All across the state, we’re having families devastated for the horrors of this kind of addiction.”

Casey said the advisory council will consist of representatives from the Department of Education, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies. Eventually, he said, grandparents will be able to click onto a website where all of the information will be in one place.

Cox said she would like more educational resources for her grandchildren, who all attend public schools in Philadelphia.

“Some of these kids need extra help because they have learning problems,” she said. “If they had had extra resources and social workers and teachers who could attend to them, that would help a great deal — and take a lot of stress off of us.”

But Jean Hackney, vice president of Grands as Parents, a nonprofit support group based in Philadelphia, said

Jean Hackney, vice president of Grands as Parents, wonders if the bill will be effective.
(Annette John-Hall/WHYY)

she’s seen too many advisory committees and participated in too many roundtables to no avail in the 20 years she’s worked on behalf of grandparents. She wants less talk and more action.

“We have phone bills to pay, we have electric to pay, water to pay, tokens to buy …” she said. “How many advisory boards do we keep on getting and nothing comes out of them?”

While Hackney believes the law will help, she said she wonders about the absence of political concern when she was raising her own grandchildren 20 years ago, during the crack-cocaine epidemic.

“The drug crisis has been going to for years,” she said. “That’s why a lot of people took their grandkids in the first place. But now I watch TV and hear about grandparents taking care of their kids, and they’re not talking about people of color. These people are white, so now, all of a sudden, it’s a crisis.”

Casey agreed that it was a “failure of the system” that resources weren’t available to grandparents then. That’s  why “real people” will be on the advisory council, grandparents and caregivers,” he said. “So we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past where a lot of families didn’t have that kind of support they needed.”

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