Standing in the breach

by Jordan Green

Grandparents sacrifice to hold families together They are motivated by immense love. They are totally selfless and generous beyond measure. They take on the sometimes impossible. For the most part, they are people whose religious faith is a living and tangible force for survival. They are grandparents who, having already raised one generation, step up to raise the next, acting as surrogates for parents who are serving prison sentences, deployed to war zones, struggling with addiction or, in some cases, dead.

‘I can deal with the blows, but I refuse to let my grandson or any of my grandchildren go through unnecessary hardships or lack of love.

They know, push come to shove, I love my children, but I love my grandchildren. But my children are grown and the grandchildren have to be brought up where they can be productive young people.’

– Gloria Felder

Gloria Felder, 58, was commuting back and forth from Greensboro to Salisbury four-and-a-half years ago to take her grandson, Jevon Lewis, to school. She had been helping her son because he and his wife and gone through a divorce. But newly widowed in late 2007, Felder was worn out from the trips. She was dissatisfied with the level of care and attention her grandson was receiving. Her son was preparing to deploy to Iraq, and with his consent, she brought Jevon back to Greensboro.

The death of Felder’s husband from lung cancer came as a blow to their son.

“And he immediately made the choice of joining the service,” Felder said. “He did it. He’s back home. When I say ‘back home,’ back in the United States. It wasn’t easy. It’s not easy. But he accepts the fact and knows that, for whatever it’s worth, the child’s in the best place.”

The choice of a grandparent to take in grandchildren can create tension and conflict with the child’s biological parents.

“Sometimes you have to take affirmative action for the well-being of someone that you love,” Felder said. “I can deal with the blows, but I refuse to let my grandson or any of my grandchildren go through unnecessary hardships or lack of love. They know, push come to shove, I love my children, but I love my grandchildren. But my children are grown and the grandchildren have to be brought up where they can be productive young people.”

Althea Weddington, 61, took in her grandson, Samuel Loggins, when her son was sentenced to prison for drug-related charges. That was four years ago. Her grandson is now 14 years old. Weddington will be responsible for clothing and feeding Samuel, and seeing that he is prepared for school until her son is released in two years. At the time of his incarceration, Samuel’s father had custody of him; his mother is disabled and unable to provide a home for him.

“It wasn’t a decision,” said Weddington, who lives in Greensboro. “I had to do it. Not that I was all that happy about it.”

Weddington questions why so many young people forfeit responsibility for raising children.

“When you get to be a parent you give them all the love you can,” she said. “You ask God to give you all the patience, love and guidance. And He will, too. You want your children to feel loved. You would be surprised about all the children out here who walk around who don’t feel loved. I always wanted my children to feel loved.”

Just after Easter of 2011, 45-year-old Teddy Easterling learned that his daughter had been murdered by her boyfriend and father of her child. Takeyia Easterling was shot to death as she held her 7-month-old baby. Her boyfriend dumped the body in front of a Bennettsville, SC hospital, pushed the baby out of the car on a four-lane highway and then drove over his arm during the getaway.

Easterling and his wife Donna, who live in High Point, struggled with in-laws and social services to obtain custody of the child. The couple gained the support of the guardian ad litem service in Marlboro County, and a South Carolina judge awarded custody of the child to Teddy Easterling after finding that he had presented sufficient evidence to refute a negative home study conducted by the NC Division of Social Services. The couple plans to legally change the child’s name from Vondell Malachi Jr. — after his biological father — to Teddy Elijah Easterling. They call him TJ for short.

Little TJ was born into adversity, his abrupt entrance into the world occasioned by violence and abuse.

“This boy beat her when she was 25 weeks pregnant with him, and he came out a 25-week baby,” Donna said. “He weighed one pound, eight ounces. He had bleeding on the brain. He had a preemie stroke…. [The boyfriend] kicked her in the stomach when she was 25 weeks, and it caused him to be born with trauma. He’s had over five blood transfusions before he was 10 years old.”

At 19 months old TJ was still not walking on his own — only the most tangible reminder of the developmental delays resulting from the abuse inflicted on him in his young life.

“We just had to mentally prepare for a new baby,” said Donna, who is 36, “because we thought we were done. But it’s been a joy because he’s such a good baby and a happy baby.”

Teddy, who has raised three girls, is excited about the prospect, at last, of raising a boy.

“I’m going to have him working on cars, welding,” he said. “Everything I do, he’s going to learn how to do it. Like my daughter, and she being 6 years old I can send her out there to get a 9/16 wrench or a half-inch wrench. That’s how I’m going to have him. When I get under the car, he’s going to be right beside me.”

The number of grandparents raising grandchildren is on the rise worldwide, according to Mark Testa, a professor of social work at UNC- Chapel Hill.

“Some of the slack is being picked up by these multi-generational families,” he said. “It’s tougher for young people to get a foothold in this changing economy. They’re not finding work as quickly and they’re not finding jobs that are as secure or high paying as they used to. And actually grandparents have never been healthier and are living longer, so they’re available. So there’s a positive side to this. Everyone’s first preference is that children stay with their families.”

Felder and Weddington joined dozens of other grandmothers for a meeting of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren, a support group sponsored by Senior Resources of Guilford, on the second floor of the Dorothy Bardolph Building in Greensboro on a recent Thursday. The monthly “lunch and learn” meetings include free lunch, childcare and transportation, and give the grandmothers an opportunity to learn about legal, financial and health resources. They exchange parenting advice, and gather strength from the realization that they’re not facing their hardships alone.

Kinship care providers must grapple with a number of challenges because of the vagaries of their legal status as parents. One grandmother said she had to fight with the school system to get her grandchild enrolled. Another was trying to figure out how to access health services so granddaughter could get her tonsils removed.

Extended-family caregivers must often navigate the court system to ensure a reasonable level of stability for the children. One woman was trying to get custody of great-grand daughter because the child’s biological mother was homeless. Another was frustrated because her son had been unwilling to petition the courts to give her legal guardianship of the child. She was afraid that the biological mother, who has to this point been derelict as a parent, would suddenly and without warning show up to collect the child from school.

“That would tear me up,” she said. At last month’s meeting, Sebrina Cooke-Davis, a parent education program supervisor with the Children’s Home Society of North Carolina, was working with the grandmothers on a more basic challenge — maintaining sanity.

“I know y’all nurture your grandchildren, ’cause ya gotta,” Cooke-Davis said. “I want to make sure you nurture yourself.”

She suggested finding another family member who was able take care of the children from time to time to give them some respite, but some of the grandmothers said in a chorus that family is not always there for them.

“I never realized just how private going to bathroom really is until I had a child,” Cooke- Davis said. “You know, you think you’ve gotten a minute to yourself, and you see these little fingers reaching under the door.”

A murmur of recognition rose from the grandparents who are raising toddlers.

In 2000, Gloria Felder started hemorrhaging blood. Her doctors gave her three days to live and sent her home for hospice care.

“I’m a very firm believer in my Lord and Savior,” Felder said. “And prayer changes things, but most of all you have to believe what you ask God for. It just wasn’t my time. I just believe God had something in mind for me. And he did, and that’s for me to take care of my grandchildren.

“I rebuke all of it because I’m still here,” she added. “And I’m doing better than my children are. I’m feistier.”

The drawback of parenting as a grandmother is that Felder is not young enough to play basketball and do other physical activities that interest Jevon as a teenager. All the same, having a child to care for gives her a purpose.

“I know he keeps me going a lot,” Felder said. “I look at it in that sense. A lot of times when I have been sick, my baby — I couldn’t go up the steps because of my back trouble, and he would go upstairs to his room. But when I’d wake up he would have a pallet made at my feet. And to me, just that kind of concern and love lets me know that I’m doing what should be done. Because he showed love back to me by not leaving me when he thought I couldn’t take care of myself.”

Felder and her husband completed careers in food service, and now Felder lives off of disability benefits and a widow’s pension. Church friends contribute vegetables from the garden, and she cans tomatoes to last through the winter.

The toughest part of raising a child on limited income, Felder said, is “when I know that maybe this week is heavy on bills and I have to stay tight on my budget, but maybe there’s something he wants to do or go buy a game, and I have to sit and think about which way I’m going to go.”

‘Research shows that kinship care is the safest, most stable and most secure form of substitute care that we can provide. And why every state doesn’t support it the way it should is a mystery to me.’

– Mark Testa, professor of social work

Felder takes her grandson to GameStop from time to time to buy a used game. Or they go to McDonald’s and order from the dollar menu for a break from routine. Or just walk around the mall for entertainment and leisure.

“It’s just balancing out what’s more important to boost his spirits,” Felder said, “to make him feel like we’re not just — just as broke as we are.”

Like many grandparent caregivers, Felder doesn’t want to pursue full custody of her grandson because she doesn’t want to close the door completely on his father.

“I didn’t want to take that option away from my son,” she said. “I know that sounds a little off-track, but I did not want to take financial gain over the abruptness of his marital situation because he was going through a crisis. So that’s my family. You know, we work together. I think that would be devastating for me to say, ‘I’m completely taking the child out of your hands.’ That’s one of those choices that people say, ‘You need to…’ but there is a bit of dignity that needs to be left intact — if deserved.”

Like others who attend the Grandparents Raising Grandchildren meetings, Felder has become adept at developing a support network of friends, family, her church and school employees. She recognizes the value of outside help, when appropriate, putting Jevon in therapy for a time to help him deal with what she considers to be maternal abandonment.

“I didn’t want him to be stigmatized by that,” Felder said. “He’s not going to tell me everything, but he’ll be a little more open with the therapist. He can pick up on things that I wouldn’t even detect because I’m too close to the situation.”

Jevon is a slender, soft-spoken boy with a spectacular smile who addresses adults as ma’am and sir. He plans to sign up for ROTC and go out for wrestling and track as a freshman next year at Ragsdale High School. On my first visit to Gloria Felder’s home, Jevon touched and amused his grandmother by taking a pail of water outside to wash her truck.

He told me there were no drawbacks to living with his grandmother, and admitted that sometimes he wishes he lived with his biological parents. But he gives his grandmother a lot of credit.

“I’ve learned how to dress myself properly,” Jevon said. “I’ve learned how to focus more on doing work and achieving more in life.”

Samuel Loggins, Althea Wedddington’s grandson, has always been close with his father. That was apparent during the sentencing.

“In these years he really needs his daddy,” Weddington said. “And my son knows it. The judge asked him if he wanted to say anything, and he apologized to his son. There wasn’t a dry eye in the courtroom.”

Weddington has made adjustments as a fulltime parent to Samuel.

“Teenagers are so hard to raise, too,” she said.

“I’m always wary when he’s out, about where he is and when he’ll be back. He seems to think you’re so tight on him when you’re just trying to be protective.

“You’ve got to make sure he has something to eat. Before, I would just get a can of soup out of the cabinet, but he eats a full-course meal like a grown man. I’ve got to make sure he’s got clean clothes, and that he’s got everything he needs for school and sports in the morning.”

Weddington receives $181 per month in benefits from Work First — North Carolina’s Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program — and $154 in food stamps, but she still has to make difficult budgeting decisions on a day-to-day basis.

“It breaks your heart when you can’t get him everything he wants,” she said. “You can’t afford the name brands.”

Samuel plays baseball, football and basketball, and has demonstrated sufficient academic promise to be accepted next year at the Middle College at A&T. He impressed his grandmother by working as a barber with a relative last summer and using the money he earned to lavish gifts on family members.

Samuel had some trouble with acting out at school. It was a Guilford County Schools administrator that alerted Weddington to Medicaid funds available to pay for counseling. The counselor proved to be helpful to both grandmother and grandson.

“He told us it’s not fair that he doesn’t have his parents like other children do,” Weddington said. “I had to tell him: ‘You do have your parents. You get to see them, you get to talk with them, you get to touch them; you just aren’t with them every day. It’s not like they’re dead.’ And I told him: ‘It’s not your fault that your father’s in prison. You didn’t do anything wrong.’ I understand how he feels though. He said, ‘I know you love me, but it’s not the same.’ I don’t drive, so I’m not able to take him to a lot of functions.”

Like Felder, Weddington approaches parenting as a team effort with her son — to the extent possible.

She and Samuel visit his father in prison. And she pays for the phone calls from prison — at $3.75 a pop.

“He tells him when he was being so unruly — he choked a boy, it could have gone to juvie, but they didn’t let it go that far — he tells him: ‘Little things like that get you where I am. I don’t want that for you. Don’t run with the wrong crowd.’ Because he is so smart [he has to recognize] how easy it is to mess that up.”

Crucial though the phone calls are, they are sometimes a luxury Weddington can’t afford. She has to tell her son to ration the calls because each one cuts into the funds available for her to provide for Samuel.

At her age, Weddington wouldn’t mind having some time for leisure. She said she wishes Samuel would take the initiative to help out around the house from time to time by washing dishes or other chores.

“I tell him: ‘You don’t know how it feels to sacrifice,’ and he’s so resentful and pushing back,” she said. “It gets you kind of pissed. I ain’t going to lie to you. It hurts a lot. Like I tell him: ‘If you didn’t have me you would be in foster care.’” On one visit, I asked Samuel how he felt about his grandmother taking him under her roof and taking care of him.

“I feel like it was her responsibility as a grandparent,” he replied. His grandmother raised her eyebrows and Samuel turned to her.

“I’m the kid of your kid,” he told her, “so I’m your responsibility.” She chuckled ruefully.

“You don’t think I had to uproot my whole life?” “You weren’t doing anything important anyway.”

Weddington let it go at that. “You have to pray over these children a lot,” she said.

Teddy Easterling said what he wants most for TJ is for him to not hate his father.

“I told this man in the courtroom to his face,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Even though what you done is you took my daughter’s life for a senseless reason and threw my grandson out of the car and could have killed him, too,’ I said, ‘Guess what, all of that you did, I forgive you because you’ve got to deal with God.’ He burst out crying.”

The Easterlings plan to tell TJ about his biological parents when he turns 6.

“We’ve got to prepare him to be strong from now on out because people are mean,” Donna Easterling said. “Even though we’re going to change his name, it’s still going to be people that still knows. And sometimes people can be cruel without even knowing it.”

The Easterlings are a relatively young couple, by no means senior citizens. They’ve proven adept at adjusting to the unique circumstances of raising a special-needs child.

One lesson was throwing out the advice of a social worker.

“The doctor asked why was he in another room, with his condition,” Teddy said. “We explained it to her: This is what these people were saying. She said, ‘Hell no, we won’t do that.’ She said, ‘This baby is going to sleep in this room in this crib where you can see him and monitor his every reaction, every movement and see everything he do. And that’s what we done.”

The lesson was reinforced one day when they were watching television.

“You know how sometimes something says, ‘Turn around’?” Donna said. “I turned around he was like this, and he was trembling and tears were coming down his face. But had I not turned around and looked, I would not have knew it because he could not make no noise. He wasn’t breathing.”

As if to emphasize the couples’ focus on maintaining a safe and nurturing home, Teddy said there no alcohol is consumed in the house, although he does go outside to smoke cigarettes.

Being with the Easterlings in their home gives one a palpable sense of miracle.

“Anybody that thinks prayer don’t work, they’re wrong,” Teddy said. “Because prayer works. And it changes things.”

During my visit, a counselor was working with 6-year-old Shania in her room. Teddy said Shania’s teacher told him that his daughter wants to fight with boys at school because a male hurt her sister and took her away.

Shania dotes on her little brother. “I call him ‘my little sugar bear’ because my mama called me ‘sugar bear’ because of the way I used to snuggle up,” Shania said. “He likes to snuggle.”

She said she feels sad about TJ having been thrown out on the roadway.

“I loved on him a lot,” Shania said. “I saw that he needed lots of love because he’s little and his mama got killed.”

Across the state of North Carolina the 2010 Census counts 100,669 grandparents who are responsible for grandchildren, up from 79,810 in 2000. Across the nation the number of grandparents raising grandchildren is 2.7 million.

Mark Testa, the social work professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, was working in the office of the governor of Illinois in the mid-1970s when he discovered that grandparents caring for children placed in their care by social services were receiving only a third of the amount of money they would have had they been unrelated foster parents caring for the children.

“Research shows that kinship care is the safest, most stable and most secure form of substitute care that we can provide,” Testa told an audience at a fundraising banquet for KinGap Services of North Carolina in High Point last November. “And why every state doesn’t support it the way it should is a mystery to me.”

The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimated in 2005 that “if even half of the two million children being raised by relatives without parents in the home were to enter the foster care system, it would cost taxpayers $6.5 billion a year,” completely overwhelming the system.

Many kinship-care providers are unwilling to become licensed foster parents because they do not want to terminate the parental rights of the children’s biological parents. And foster care requires each child to have their own bedroom — a regulation that makes sense for children who are not related but not so much for those who share family lineage.

“Because of […] draconian budget cuts to all levels of human services, including children and foster care, pressure is exerted on child protective services and DSS to push the children into the kinship care without providing the resources to help,” said Lewis Pitts, a lawyer with Legal Aid of North Carolina who advocates for children’s rights. “It demands incredible sacrifice on usually an already burdened elderly person — frequently African American, often on fixed income — to take the child in. They’re willing to do it because of their huge hearts.”

The cause of supporting kinship care providers would seem to transcend the current standoff between conservative and liberal ideologies in the nation’s political discourse. Testa said that every advance on the issue over the past two decades has occurred with bipartisan support. He noted that it was President George W. Bush who signed the 2008 Fostering Connections Act, which allows states to apply for federal funds to provide assistance payments to relatives who take legal guardianship of children who have been in foster care.

“What’s tricky is trying to put together a sustainable funding arrangement that won’t break the bank,” Testa said. “You have to convince people that subsidized guardianship is cheaper over the long term than foster care.”

Many grandparents and other kinship caregivers are intimidated about asking for additional financial support from the state for fear that their motivations and commitment will be questioned.

“It just feels like sometimes the ones who have worked all their lives and paid the taxes and everything seem to be getting short-changed versus those who are just sitting at home,” Felder said. “I just feel more could be done for the older generation that’s willing to take care of their grandchildren or anyone that’s willing to step in and give them love and care and guidance that’s needed to these young adults instead of making them a statistic and putting them into the system.

“Foster homes — you know, some people have to because they don’t have any relatives,” she continued, “but I think when your family’s willing to step in and do it, we shouldn’t make them go through so many changes just to get assistance.”