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The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

Raising Grandchildren and Awareness; Seniors Becoming Surrogate Parents and Find Public Aid Lacking

By Tina Traster

January 4, 1997 -- Darkness has fallen and the aroma of a robust spaghetti sauce permeates the small house on Tulip Street in Bergenfield.

While Elaine Weisbrod, 61, shuttles between the cluttered kitchen and toy-strewn dining room preparing dinner, her husband, Paul, a semi-retired computer programmer, watches an animated adventure on television with their 6-year-old twins, Tommy and Riva.

Three decades after raising four sons, the Weisbrods are rearing their grandchildren, the twins and 9-year-old Kyle, because a Family Court judge ruled six years ago that the children's drug-addicted parents were incapable of caring for them.

Rather than indulge themselves in their "golden years," the Weisbrods juggle schooling, sports, and social activities. Retirement plans to visit Florida and see Broadway shows have been shelved because time and energy are dedicated to parenting. Medical bills are mounting because the twins were born addicted to cocaine.

"We had no idea how hard this would be," said Elaine Weisbrod.

"Parents need a lot of energy. That's why God made parents young."

In New Jersey and nationally, a growing legion of grandparents is taking responsibility for disenfranchised grandchildren. These children place tremendous strain on the grandparents resources and raise questions about who should foot the bill: the grandparents or the taxpayers.

Nationally, the number of grandparent-headed households has grown 35 percent since 1950, and the figures are rising. Recent statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 130,000 families in New Jersey and 2.4 million nationally are headed by grandparents.

Bergen County does not track the number of grandparent-led homes, but Passaic County officials say there are approximately 700 households there where grandparents are raising their grandchildren.

Recently completed studies from six counties in the state, including Bergen but not Passaic, show that grandparents raising children feel overburdened with expenses and unsupported by the state.

"I've had to make additions on the house, keep a part-time job, and I've eaten through at least 25 percent of my 401(k) plan," said Paul Weisbrod, 62.

The Weisbrods receive $486 a month plus Medicaid benefits for the three children because the children are covered under the state welfare system.

According to state figures, there are about 12,000 relatives, mostly grandparents, who receive money from the state to provide care for children who otherwise might be placed with foster families. The only way a relative can receive financial help from the state is if a child has been removed from the parents home at the request of the state Division of Youth and Family Services.

But if the Weisbrods, who are considered "kinship caretakers," relatives who assume responsibility for abandoned or endangered children, had the same eligibility as foster parents, they would receive between $ 294 and $ 386 per child. The state offers greater support to foster-care parents as an incentive for them to take care of non-blood relations.

In March, Governor Whitman vowed to spend $ 20 million over three years to overhaul the state-run foster-care system, which shelters 6,600 children in 2,600 homes.

Child advocates and grandparent groups are calling for the state to elevate grandparents to the status of foster parents by providing them with better benefits and services.

There are bills pending in both houses of the state Legislature that would accomplish that objective.

Most grandparents who are raising children live on fixed incomes. A poll conducted by the American Association of Retired Persons Grandparent Information Center showed that 39 percent of seniors earned $20,000 a year or less.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Human Services is reviewing recommendations from grandparents who took part in the survey.

"What's consistent in the reports is that grandparents feel that a person taking care of a relative's children should get the same type of benefits that a foster-care parent gets," said Jim Smith, Human Services deputy commissioner.

State policy-makers have been wary of granting foster-care benefits to relatives. There are many reasons.

First, there is a philosophical argument over who should foot the bill for a child: relatives or the taxpayers.

Also, many say opening the foster-care system to relatives may also open the system to abuse because parents could relinquish children just to get benefits.

"We will continue to look at the reports and decide what is good policy," said Smith.

Smith said that of more than 6,600 foster-care households, only about 50 are represented by grandparents.

The process to become a foster-care parent is rigorous.

A caseworker from the Division of Youth and Family Services and a judge must place the grandchildren in the grandparents care.

Grandparents must undergo training and background checks, and must participate in finding a permanent home, which could involve severing their own child's parenting rights.

Foster care is a temporary placement until the child can be returned home, DYFS officials say. Foster parenting is not a permanent condition, so grandparents must either adopt the children or continue to work to return the children to their parents or another guardian.

Meanwhile, Bergen County officials plan to press for reform.

"More and more grandparents are fulfilling the role of parents, and we have not adjusted in practical ways, "said Bergen County Executive William "Pat" Schuber." We need to take a look at social and economic reform to make sure the policies are not excluding grandparents."

Schuber pledges to apply to the Department of Human Services for a $ 25,000 grant to set up a Grandparents Resource Center in the county to provide information and guidance to grandparents navigating the complicated welfare and foster-care systems.

The county has a new brochure that steers seniors to parenting services.

Passaic County officials agree there's an urgent need to deal with the increasing numbers of grandparents who are raising children.

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