Changing America: More children living in their grandparents' homes

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

WASHINGTON -- More American children are calling Grandma's house home. In Florida alone, the 2000 Census says, more than 250,000 children live in homes headed by grandparents, up 33 percent from 1990.

Increases were just as large in nearly every other state for which the latest round of census data is available.

Figures released Wednesday for Florida showed that 258,952 children under 18 lived in grandparent-headed homes. Some 2.2 million children lived in homes headed by married parents, up 19 percent from 1990.

The total population of children in Florida in 2000 was 3.6 million, compared with 2.9 million a decade before. The share of children in grandparent-headed homes increased from 6.8 percent to 7.1 percent in that period.

The figures offer another perspective into the more diverse makeup of American families.

The issue of grandparents seeking custody or visitation rights with grandchildren has become a thorny one in court. A 1999 Supreme Court decision said states must be very careful in helping grandparents win the right to see grandchildren regularly when it is against parents' wishes.

Groups including AARP, the nation's largest advocacy group for senior citizens, hope the data also persuade lawmakers to earmark more financial assistance for grandparents thrust into parenting roles again.

Jim Landenberger, of Naples, Fla., gained custody of his two grandsons after his daughter -- the boys' mother -- was sent to prison and the boys' father died.

A long legal battle with the family of the grandsons' father drained their savings and forced Landenberger to put his work as an artistic painter on hold.

''After four years of paying attorneys, you lose everything. But was it all worth it? You better believe it,'' Landenberger said.

A 1997 Census Bureau survey estimated that over half of the kids living in grandparent-headed homes had their mother living in the house with them. About one-third of the homes did not include the grandchild's parent.

National numbers from the 2000 census will not be available until after all 50 states get their data, expected by mid-August.

Additionally, these figures do not show the full extent to which grandparents play a caregiving role for grandchildren since the census does not cover, for instance, grandparents living in a home headed by their own son or daughter.

And, the 2000 census will next year detail the other side of the relationship for the first time -- how many people consider themselves primary caregivers to their grandchildren.

The 1990 census found 3.5 million children under 18 in the United States, or 5.5 percent of kids, living in a grandparent-headed home, up from 3.2 percent of kids in 1970.

''We think it will just increase more. We hear more from these grandparents, asking about legal and financial assistance,'' said Amy Goyer of AARP's Grandparent Information Center.

Figures released Wednesday for Hawaii showed that 12.9 percent of children there lived in a grandparent's home in 2000, one of the highest shares among states released so far. That was up from 10.4 percent in 1990.

Meanwhile, 61.9 percent of Hawaiian kids lived in married-parent homes in 2000, down from 69.4 percent in 1990.

While previous studies have shown that grandparent-headed households occur more in low-income families, divorce, career choices and job constraints are causing numbers to rise in all socio-economic groups, said Gregory Brock, director of the University of Kentucky Family Center.

And an increase in drug abuse in recent decades has also contributed to the trend as addicted parents suffer health problems, enter rehabilitation programs, or are jailed, he said.

Regardless of the reason, Brock said the trend is reminiscent of pre-World War II when three-generation households were not uncommon.

Kathy Reynolds, of Enfield, Conn., runs ''GrandsPlace'' an Internet site for grandparents caring for kids. After her daughter went into drug rehab, Reynolds gained custody of her 5-year-old granddaughter.

''Society in general is beginning to understand more about grandparents raising grandchildren,'' she said.


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