March 28, 2008

Raising a grandchild, niece or nephew often brings its own set of problems. The GAP conference, held in Lexington recently, sought to help people find solutions to those problems.

According to Diana Doggett, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension agent for family and consumer sciences in Fayette County, the conference’s name has two meanings. On one level it is an acronym for its sponsoring coalition, Grandparents and relatives As Parents, but on another level, it is symbolic of standing in the gap to support a child.

“No matter how difficult the road becomes, how rocky, it’s all worth it knowing that you really, really stood in the gap. And that’s the reason we named this conference GAP,” she said. “It’s for someone who’s willing to stand in the gap of circumstances that prevail for someone who has unfairly found their lives in the middle of controversy or a situation that’s outside a normal household.”

Despite the fact that nearly 7 percent of the children in Kentucky are being raised by grandparents or relatives, Doggett said people in this situation often feel isolated.

“They’re struggling with resources; they’re struggling financially; they’re struggling emotionally,” she said. “You’ve got a group of people here who are battling legal issues and still trying to look out for the welfare of this child and raise a happy, healthy human being.”

One of the purposes of the conference, she said, is to offer valuable networking opportunities. Participants will often go home with each others’ names and phone numbers, as well as access to legal advice. The conference consolidates information and support for people whose schedules are often so full that they can’t find the time to seek out support on their own.

During the workshop sessions, participants told stories of being torn between wanting to help their children, who are often battling their own demons, and wanting to protect and nurture their grandchildren. The stories all share similarities: difficulty obtaining custody, difficulty in managing the court system and difficulty with managing time and money. Doug Burnham, an extension health specialist with UK’s Health Education through Extension Leadership program, led a workshop on parenting and the emotional impact for grandparents and relatives. He called it encore parenting and said it can impact finances, delay or derail plans, change the interaction with the child’s parent and have an impact on partner relationships.

There were also judges and family practice lawyers present to answer legal questions. One workshop covered the various levels of custody including guardianship through adoption, with each level addressed by different courts. Guardianship issues are handled at the district court level, while custody disputes are the purview of circuit court. While the situation plays out at the legal level, it was acknowledged that the emotional toll can be immense.

Melinda Earlywine, a conference volunteer, understands that all too clearly. She now has permanent custody of her 7-year-old grandson, a process that began when he was 18 months old and lasted for years. One of the biggest issues she faced was working her way through the court system and not being able to find out any information.

“Nobody tells you anything because you’re the grandparent,” she said, talking about the frustrations that are part of the process. “Dealing with social workers and nobody being able to tell you anything or how it’s going. Not being recognized in the court system as a de facto custodian, even though the child had lived with us for the specified amount of time.”

She said she sent out approximately 50 letters to people in the legal and political realms to settle that issue. But the long process took its toll on her personal life. She had to give up her job so she would have the time to take care of her grandson.

“We went through a lot of changes in the two, three year period of time to try to accommodate,” she said. “It affects every part of your life.”

To Earlywine, it was all worth it.

“We wouldn’t have it any other way now,” she said. “We love him so much, and he keeps our lives in perspective a lot of the time.”

The sixth annual conference was sponsored by the Grandparents and Relatives As Parents Coalition. The coalition is comprised of Fayette County Cooperative Extension, Family Resource Centers from a number of schools in the Fayette County system, Access to Justice Foundation, Bluegrass Area Agency on Aging, the Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation/Division of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, Lexington Senior Citizens Center, as well as grandparents and community members.

For more information about issues concerning encore parenting, contact the local extension office or your school’s family resource center.