‘We make it work’: Philly grandparents, advocates push for better programs and policies to help grandparent caregivers

More than 17,000 grandparents are raising their grandchildren in Philly. They face hidden challenges, such as legal guidelines and financial support.

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Sheila Johnson

Shelia Johnson with a photo of the three grandchildren she raised. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

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Philadelphia grandparents are raising their grandchildren at a higher rate today than two decades ago. Sheila Johnson of Manayunk raised three of her daughter’s children since they were infants. They are all now young adults.

Johnson was among the 30% of grandparents in Philadelphia who are caregivers for grandchildren younger than 18, according to the Census Bureau. That amounts to about 45,000 children living with their grandparents.

“I really built my life around them,” Johnson said.

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Like many, Johnson’s path to becoming a caregiver began suddenly. Her grandchildren’s biological parents were deemed unfit. Not wanting to go into too much detail, she said her daughter had mental health issues.

“Just think of it, we’re being four parents. We’re being mom, dad, grandma, granddad,” Johnson said.

She remembers the moment she got the call from a “Miss Johnson at DHS” while sitting at her desk at Temple University.

“‘Could you take your granddaughter?’ I’m like, ‘Who is this?’” I was in shock,” she said.

The DHS official told her that if she did not get her four-month-old granddaughter, the baby would be placed in Child Protective Services. Johnson rushed out of work to pick her up.

But she was not ready for the cascade of legal paperwork, court appearances and the lack of clear guidance for grandparents. Round two of parenting was different. Although she had plenty of love to give, the logistics of grandparenting were confusing.

She downsized her car, put her plans to get her college degree in social work on hold and focused on the children.

“When they came into my care, I had no idea what to do,” she admits. “There’s no book for it.”

Johnson began searching and found the local organization Connectedly. Formerly known as Supportive Older Women’s Network (SOWN), Connectedly has served the older community for the last 40 years.

Shelia Johnson looking at a photo on the wall
Shelia Johnson admires a photo herself with her granddaughter, one of three of her grandchildren she’s raised. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On Feb. 10, it will host its first event in 2024 with its new name, bringing grandparents together to meet one another, make Valentine’s Day crafts and create their own vision boards for what they want or need.

In January 2024, it was rebranded to respond to community needs and connect more of Philadelphia’s older residents with resources, which included caregiver networks and programs. The organization provides free help through their programs and aims to reduce loneliness by building networks among other grandfamilies. Events like the one on Saturday are a response to growing requests.

Connectedly staff first caught wind of the increased number of grandparents becoming caregivers almost 20 years ago, and it has been growing ever since. Marypat Tracy, executive director at Connectedly, and her staff noticed first-hand that more grandparents were calling in and requesting help navigating complicated court processes and managing the kids’ health and school appointments.

Research shows that is true. Grandparent-led families increased by 22% between 2000 and 2011 nationwide, according to the latest available data by Pew Research Center.

Often, they take on the responsibility willingly and without question, like Johnson.

“I would do it again,” Johnson said. “It’s a commitment of joy. It’s a commitment of pain. I have no regrets.”

Sudden and complex needs for grandfamilies

However, these sudden responsibilities may make grandparents feel isolated, research shows.

“There’s not a lot of time to contemplate ‘Should I, shouldn’t I?’ ” Tracy said. “[But] if they didn’t step in, the foster care system was the only option. There aren’t other options for kids whose parents are unable to raise them.”

Grandmother of three, Johnson used the old cliche, “it takes a village,” especially for grandparents raising young children. She sought help and found Connecredly, which has supported her over the years. Today, she serves as a resource for others in her shoes.

Chartran Nelson, executive director of Grand Central – Kinship Care Resource Center in Philadelphia, has seen the same. Nelson said the substance abuse crisis and untreated mental health illnesses are the main drivers. That is rooted in unmet health needs, she said.

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In the 1990s, parents caught up in the drug epidemic surrendered their children. Today, she said, those children grew up without mental health support and continue the same cycle.

“People were concerned about their immediate needs but not even thinking about the correlation,” she said.

Nelson has been an educator in the caregiving and kinship world for more than 20 years. She said families’ needs have evolved, especially with the aftermath of the pandemic and inflation, and agencies need to take a holistic approach to care for grandfamilies. Additionally, research bears out the benefits of kinship care for children, which include ties to culture, tradition and legacy.

A Generations United report stated that “children in foster care with relatives experience more stability; better mental and behavioral health; more feelings of belonging and acceptance … and are more likely to report always feeling loved” compared to non-family foster care.

The reasons why parents cannot raise their kids range in severity, such as substance abuse problems, deportation, incarceration,  job loss and divorce, a Generations United report outlined. While not all cases are severe, there is an increased awareness among parents with substance abuse disorders and the links to grandparents becoming caregivers.

Grandparents citing “substance abuse” as the reason why they are caregivers increased from 21% to 40% between 2002-2019, according to a study in Innovation of Aging.

“The states with the highest percentages of grandparents raising grandchildren were also the states with the highest opioid prescribing rates,” the Generations United report stated.

Recovery from addiction is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP), or visit findtreatment.gov

Philadelphia has an opioid dispensing rate of 38.4 per every 100 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Relina Bonilla became a caregiver because of the opioid crisis.

She and her daughter live in the Kensington area. Each wall is decorated with a smattering of family photos alongside images of a teapot.

Relina Bonilla
Relina Bonilla, surrounded by family photos in her home in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“The teapot reminds me of being an empty vessel, it doesn’t matter what it looks like but … you can all hold that precious liquid of love and tenderness and kindness and goodness,” Bonilla said. “That’s what I teach my grandchildren.”

Bonilla, a former Head Start educator, is currently caring for her son’s four children, Roman, 11, Lilliani, 8, and twins Joseph and Mason, 4, because of their parents’ substance abuse issues.

When Roman was four, and Lilliani was a few months old, Bonilla’s son admitted himself into rehab and signed over custody. Although she was overwhelmed, she did not “want to see them fall through the loop in the system.”

Over the years, two children became four. Their mother has been living with a substance abuse disorder for the last four years, and their father is in recovery.

“We would rather them be with family if no one else was going to reach out,” she said. “It’s a humble little home and … we may not have a lot of room but we make it work.”

Bonilla built a network with other grandparents who lived through what she lived through after meeting a staffer from Connectedly. They helped her navigate her new life.

Relina Bonilla with her family
Relina Bonilla (center) with her children Hiram (top left) and Angelica (top right) and her grandchildren Roman, 11 (right), Lilyonie, 8 (left) and twins Joseph and Mason, 4 (bottom) at Bonilla’s home in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The role of agency and federal support, and what needs to change

The most pressing challenges for families like Johnson’s and Bonilla’s are financial, legal and mental health support, behavioral health resources for the children, and inaccessible or inadequate information about programs to support grandparent caregivers, according to Generations United.

Federal policy recommendations

• Increase access to affordable, quality, trauma-informed mental health treatment and training for youth and caregivers in
grandfamilies.
• Ensure basic needs of grandfamilies are met to address chronic stress and allow them to prioritize mental health and wellness.
• Promote and invest in self-care training and strategies, respite care, and support groups.
• Support and implement strategies to address social isolation.
• Create pathways to increase peer-to-peer supports.

Some systems in place that support children who may be in danger of neglect or who require another caregiver are not tailored to support grandparents, said Jaia Lent, deputy executive director at Generations United.

“Your life is upended and changed,” Lent said.”

New stressors brought on by traumatic situations, such as becoming a sudden caregiver, often go unaddressed, she said. At the same time, grandparents may feel disconnected from people their age who are entering retirement and become more isolated.

Without the proper care or mental health support, Generations United warned, older caregivers experience heightened stress, anxiety and may affect their ability to care for the children.

Studies have shown that caregivers tend to experience chronic stress and also neglect their own mental and physical health to focus on children’s needs. A recent Generations United study revealed heightened concerns about the increased mental health crises among grandparent caregivers and their dependents, calling for more affordable, trauma-informed and culturally competent care.

“[Grand-families had] more trouble accessing mental health services and supports … due to lack of availability, lack of legal authority, and limited understanding of grandfamilies’ needs among providers, cost, stigma, and ageism,” the study outlined.

Another challenge is navigating confusing guidelines that were originally drafted for foster parents.

“Our grandfamilies find themselves not quite fitting in any one system and not knowing where to go to turn for help,” Lent said. “We are better at supporting strangers to care for children than we are at supporting family to care for children, despite knowing that outcomes are better for children when they’re with relatives.”

However, she said the tide is shifting.

This year, the U.S. Administration for Children and Families changed a federal rule to expand licensing standards and include financial support for children’s families, updating the definition of “foster family home” that was proposed on Feb. 14, 2023.

Even though the majority of grandparents were employed, almost 20% of grandparent-led households live in poverty, U.S. Census data show. Fixed, limited or lower incomes make it difficult to afford extra expenses such as childcare, school and basic needs such as diapers, bedding and food.

“[It] is really promising but it takes some time for those changes to trickle down into the reality of day-to-day casework on the ground,” Lent said.

But as the needs increase, so do the number of programs dedicated to supporting these families in Philly.

A case in point is Connectedly.

In 2022, Connectedly was awarded two grants specifically for grandparents raising their grandchildren. The William Penn Foundation grant helped expand the GrandFamily Resource Center and a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York focused on better equipping grandparents with the child’s education.

Since then, Connectedly has hosted peer-support groups for grand-families.

Today, the nonprofit has dedicated grandparent caregiver programs, community outreach and peer-support groups. The staff hosts community events that bring together grandfamilies and improve access to resources, such as literacy programs and supply drives.

Bonilla was one of the families to benefit. Her grandchildren — whom she calls “my children” — participated in their literacy programs, and she found camaraderie.

Relina Bonilla
Relina Bonilla holds books gifted to her grandchildren by Connectedly, an organization that connects grandparents raising their grandkids to resources in and around Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Sometimes grandparents just need to talk to someone,” she said.

She wants more people to know about Connectedly’s programming, in particular the Grandfamily Resource Center, so they don’t feel so alone.

So does Johnson, who now mentors younger grandparents finding themselves in similar predicaments. Peer support has been the most effective tool to curb anxiety and overwhelm, Johnson and Bonilla said.

Both urge grandparents to reach out, sign up and ask for help. At the very least, Johnson said, attendees will meet for “dressed-up therapy” and walk out with a friend or two.

“Along the way, we got to know each other very intimately,” Johnson recalled. “Can I tell you today? I’m still friends with the women that I started out with here.”

Connectedly’s event on Feb. 10 will take place at the Lillian Marrero Library, 601 W. Lehigh Ave., from 1-2 p.m. Families are invited to make Valentine’s Day-themed crafts, converse and meet with the network. 

To learn more about local and national programs that support grand-families with substance abuse advice, mental health resources and kinship information, click the links:

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