by Kate Evans
With so many grandparents and family relatives caring for children in West Virginia, the Healthy Grandfamilies program was created to bring information, resources and support to relative/kinship caregivers that are raising one or more grandchildren or children.
A five-year estimate has 205 Morgan County grandparents with grandchildren living with them in their home according to a National Center for the Analysis of Healthcare Data map.
Often these caregivers need legal, financial, social and emotional support along with
assistance to navigate social service agencies and public school systems to get care for the children.
Healthy Grandfamilies is a free initiative led by West Virginia State University and funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
West Virginia ranks second in the nation in the percentage of grandparents responsible for their grandchildren, says West Virginia State University information. For every child that’s in the foster care system nationally, 25 are being raised by grandparents or relatives outside of the system.
An eight-week Healthy Grandfamilies program features speakers and discussions on parenting, family relationships, communication, technology and social media, nutrition, legal issues, health and self-care, healthy lifestyles and stress management and negotiating the public school system.
Each session is held on the fourth Thursday of the month at 6 p.m. at the Senior Life Services of Morgan County building, said Morgan County Starting Points Executive Director Audrey Morris. A full meal and child care are provided. Starting Points is now located at the Senior Life Services Center.
Grandparents and relative caregivers in the program receive three months of follow-up care with a social worker that can include case management, food, clothing, advocacy and support services.
Their first group started last March. They have around six regulars who attend and about 10 different families that have participated. Morris said the group has been happy finding information and resources they didn’t know about and enjoying the camaraderie and support of the group.
The next session is March 26 at 6 p.m.
The first Healthy Grandfamilies County Coalition meeting was in September, Morris said. The local coalition has around 20 members and meets quarterly.
Senior Life Services Executive Director Tammy Kees, a coalition member, said they have senior center members that are raising their grandchildren. Kees encouraged them to come in for the classes because there’s a wealth of tools available to help them.
Morris said that 25% to 50% of Morgan County children are being raised by other people than their parents. That includes not just grandparents, but other relatives. Kees said people are shocked by this unless they’re in the trenches every day.
Logan County has 70% of its children being raised by someone else in the family and Wetzel County has 68%, Morris said. Many kids had a lot of trauma and have been abused and neglected. There’s a lot of back and forth between a stable environment with relatives and an unstable one with their parents. Kees said it leaves kids mentally scarred.
A relative/kinship caregiver may be a blood relative-a grandparent, great-grandparent, aunt/uncle, cousin or sister/brother, or a relative by marriage such as a sister-in-law/brother-in-law or someone the child considers family like a family friend or a godparent.
Grandparents or other relative caregivers take on caring for children due to death, illness, divorce, mental illness, unemployment, incarceration, financial problems, teen pregnancy, military deployment, abandonment and neglect, abuse and family violence and substance use. Some kids have lost both parents to overdoses, Morris said.
Berkeley Springs resident Angie Gaither and her husband have been caring for their grandsons whose ages range from two to 10 for the last three and a half years. They adopted their youngest grandson and have legal custody of three other boys.
Gaither said that they wound up with the kids due to the opioid crisis. They had a daughter with an addiction that moved out west and became homeless. Gaither and her husband had to drive across country and get the kids, the youngest of whom had been taken by Child Protective Services and given to a family member there for care. Gaither said her daughter has been doing well now for the last two years.
Gaither said she found out about the Healthy Grandfamilies program through Early Head Start and attended most of the sessions. She said the topics were helpful and included how to handle stress and take care of yourself.
A lady from Legal Aid came to talk to them and people came from Life or Drugs that had dealt with opioids. Gaither learned there was a children’s support group — Team HOPE — where kids could talk with other kids that were coping with the aftermath of addiction in their family.
Gaither said they’ve had legal issues and had to go to court and also had to deal with the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) and medical cards and health insurance. One grandson has behavioral issues and is in counseling. There’s been special school meetings and paperwork to navigate.
Gaither said the boys are involved in sports, too.
“We try to be the young parents. You can’t have them not doing things because you don’t feel like doing it,” she said.
Gaither noted that homework is the hardest part. Every night, the three boys have their spelling words and math homework. Math is done very differently now.
Gaither said she’s also gone to the monthly Healthy Grandparents meetings and meals. It’s great that childcare is provided and she noted that it’s nice to have support and understanding from other people in the group and everyone being able to share things they know.
Gaither advised others that are caring for the children of family members to seek as much support as they can –f rom family, friends and church along with groups that can help you with particular matters and give you support. Gaither said she’s found a lot of resources through the Healthy Grandfamilies program and heard good speakers and information that may be needed down the road.
Another eight-week Healthy Grandfamilies session will begin soon and organizers are looking for grandparents and other relative caregivers to participate, Morris said. Anyone can refer someone to the program.
Call Audrey Morris at Starting Points at 304-258-5600 to sign up or to refer someone.