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Grand Parenting

Parent Support Services of B.C.

“I heard a bluebird singing one day.”

An elfin, tousled-haired girl sings onstage at Burnaby’s Museum Village, sweeping a broom and blowing bubbles . . .

“He seemed a messenger of happy news.
But now my bluebird is singing the blues.”

Thirteen-year-old Avy Crowchild belts out the lament about unrequited love with precocious bravado. She’s rehearsing her role as a child singer in Footlight Theatre’s annual summer production of “Vaudeville Varieties.” Her performance sparks a “bravo!” from proud parent Bernadine Fox. The two meet backstage and embrace.

Anyone watching the familial scene would assume that Fox, 53, is Avy’s mother. Just the day before, a salesperson referred to Fox as “Mom” when she and Avy were buying jazz dance shoes. But Fox is her grandmother and has been raising Avy for the past 11 years. Fox was granted legal custody of Avy because her daughter, Avy’s mother, was and is a drug addict.

“Invariably, people call me Mom. And Avy wanted to call me Mom. But I tell her: I am your parent. But I am your grandparent. I’m not your mom because you have a mom.”

Fox is one of 10,000 grandparents in B.C. who are raising grandchildren. More than 65,000 Canadian kids are estimated to be living with their grandparents. “There are more kids being raised in B.C. by their grandparents right now than are in the entire foster care system,” says Fox.

The circumstances behind grandparents becoming guardians of their grandkids vary, but most involve heartache, trauma and crisis. Some biological mothers and fathers have died or are in jail. Others are troubled by drug addiction, mental illness, physical handicaps or the acrimony of marital strife and divorce.

Fox felt she had no choice but to take custody of Avy – against the wishes of her own daughter – after B.C.’s ministry of children and family development threatened to apprehend the girl and place her in foster care. “To take Avy away from everyone she had bonded with would have been a great emotional trauma for her.”

Fox endured years of sadness, watching her daughter consumed by addiction to cocaine and heroin. She has struggled financially, living on a long-term disability pension because of chronic fatigue syndrome.

Fox is a visual artist whose work is in many private collections, but she has channelled most of her energy into raising Avy rather than into marketing her art. “Everything else became secondary to Avy. But I could do it and I was grateful to do it because Avy is such a priceless little kid.”

She counts herself lucky. Many other grandparents are raising kids with behavioural disorders, including fetal alcohol syndrome and autism. But when Fox sought and won custody of Avy, she was not expecting to become the long-term parent. “Initially I thought I’d look after Avy for six weeks, then I thought six months max. But I didn’t understand drug addiction,” recalls Fox. “Now I’m at 11 years.”

Carol Ross, executive director of Parent Support Services of B.C., says Fox and other grandparents bringing up their grandkids are a largely invisible demographic. “They provide B.C.’s underground child welfare system. They do it for nothing, which makes it a very affordable system for the government. Because otherwise many of these children would be in foster care, which is expensive.”

A majority of these grandparents are retired and living on fixed incomes. Money for their grandkids – whether it’s for daycare, clothes, therapy or extracurricular activities – is a constant issue. And while others in their age group are looking forward to a post-retirement lifestyle of travel and leisure activities, these grandparents struggle with their grandkids’ emotional ups and downs, interviews with school teachers, clothes shopping, immunizations and the strange new world of social media.

Parent Support Services has, over the past 12 years, become the go-to social agency for these second-time-around parents. “The grandparents have been a feisty bunch, saying: ‘Hey, look at us. We need help. Things are not fair,’” says Ross.

Parent Support Services has established a Grandparents Raising Grandchildren (GRG) toll-free support line, organized GRG support groups, published a legal guide and staged larger meetings called Grand Gatherings. And this year, the group is receiving $35,000 from Vancouver Foundation for a co-ordinator to bolster the group’s support and advocacy for these grandparents.

The province previously funded the Child in the Home of a Relative (CIHR) program, providing grandparents just over $300 monthly on average for each child until the age of 19. This program was terminated in 2010, with the recipients grandfathered for continued funding. The provincial government then established a far more restrictive benefits scheme called the Extended Family Program (EFP). Far fewer grandparents qualify for benefits under the EFP than did under the CIHR program. Grandparents with legal custody of their grandkids, for instance, do not qualify.

For Carol Ross, this is a broad societal issue with implications for all of us. “The government has made choices not to support huge numbers of amazing families who raise children who otherwise would be in the foster care system, where foster parents are paid well and offered many additional supports.”

Avy’s grandmother is not eligible for EFP because she went against her daughter’s wishes and gained legal guardianship, though she still receives about $300 through the CIHR program. Fox says that Parent Support Services has become a lifeline for many grandparents. “I needed a support group when I got custody of Avy, but there was none. You knew there were other grandparents struggling with their grandkids. But they were all like me, just coping.”

Parent Support Services organizes annual Grandparents Raising Grandchildren picnics for the entire family. This year’s picnic  was held on a sunny Sunday morning in August at Queen’s Park in New Westminster, and kids made kites and blew bubbles while grandparents connected over their shared experience.

Among those attending was Sharrie Dahl, who helped raise two grandsons, and an older granddaughter. Dahl remembers with horror the day her daughter, a drug addict, asked her over the phone to pick up her two grandsons, then aged three and eight, from the care of a drug dealer in Surrey’s Whalley neighbourhood. Dahl, a former business development officer at a bank, had been looking forward to retirement. She and her husband had downsized from their house to a condo and had bought a new boat.  They had already been raising their daughter’s then 14-year-old girl since she was a baby. But they were forced to put their retirement plans on hold after the arrival of the two boys. The Dahls’ lives were shaken again by their daughter’s later suicide.

“Life became very different than what we imagined. You no longer have your freedom. It’s not: Let’s go to Vegas this weekend. Or to a cocktail party. Instead, you have to go to a soccer game, or one of your kids is having a meltdown. And you’re spending thousands of dollars without any support from the ministry.”

Dahl is no longer looking after her grandchildren, but she is an active volunteer in the grandparenting community, and praises the role played by Parent Support Services. “This group lets grandparents know they are not alone. It understands that grandparents are different from parents. We’re a generation older and we’ve been down that road before,” says Dahl. “We didn’t put our names in for this. But we came forward and we do it from the heart.”

But the heart has its limits – even for a loving grandparent. A few days before the GRG picnic, Fox’s daughter gave birth to her fifth baby. Her daughter left the baby in the hospital after a few days, without telling anyone in the family about the delivery. When Fox learned about the birth, she rushed to B.C. Women’s Hospital with Avy. She saw other grandparents in the hospital beaming with pride over the arrival of a new member of their families. Fox fears that her grandchild will end up in foster care.

“Honestly, all I wanted to do is cry,” she says. “Avy had me and her aunt to swoop in and rescue her. Her two younger sisters had their father, who was not an addict and who took full responsibility for their upbringing. But this little guy has no Dad who has come to be with him there. Mom is an addict. I cannot take on the responsibility of another baby.

“So what is to happen to this lil’ guy?”

Find out how you can help programs like Parent Support Services of B.C. Call Kristin Helgason at Vancouver Foundation Development and Donor Services at 604-629-5186.

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