Caley Richeson is inconsolable. Searching for a snack in the freezer of his Louisville, Ky., home, the 4-year-old has just dropped a quart of French vanilla ice cream on his big toe. Now he's sporting a growing bruise and crying feverishly as his maternal grandmother, Debbie Richeson, rests him in her lap and holds him tight. "Nana, it hurts," he sobs. "How long will it hurt?"
"It's going to hurt for a while, buddy," Richeson, 46, says softly. A few more minutes of cuddling and the whimpers begin to subside.
It is the kind of moment when a little boy wants his mommy. But since chronic drug abuse left Caley's single mother, Nikki, 23, unable to care for him, he has had to turn to his grandmother. In fact, Caley spends all his time with Richeson and her husband, Dave, 54, pretending he's a Power Ranger or racing around the backyard in his mini dune buggy. At night he snuggles up in their bed. "We know he's our grandchild," says Richeson, "but emotionally he's our child." Legally as well. With his mother's consent, the Richesons adopted Caley in 1999. "I knew," says Nikki, Debbie's daughter from a first marriage, "that my mom could take better care of him than I could."
More than just a family trying to make one little boy's life whole, the Richesons are part of an explosive—and disturbing—national trend. According to 2000 census estimates, Caley is one of 5.6 million children in the U.S. being raised in households headed by grandparents. Since 1970 the numbers have increased by 76 percent, spiking during the crack crisis of the 1980s and '90s and continuing to rise steadily. While substance abuse remains the most common reason, a convergence of deep social problems is at work: divorce, mental illness, AIDS, teenage pregnancy and other health issues. Whatever the cause, 2.35 million American grandparents have stepped in to raise their children's children, reassuming the physical and emotional burdens of child-rearing.
"This has reached epidemic proportions," says Sylvie de Toledo, director of Grandparents as Parents Inc. in Lakewood, Calif., one of 750 grandparenting support groups that have sprung up in recent years across the country. "Many times there are two or three kids and they'd be split up in foster care. The only thing these grandparents can do is take them in so the children still have someone they feel loves them."
According to Margaret Hollidge of AARP's Grandparent Information Center, the phenomenon isn't limited to families at the bottom of the economy. Indeed, census figures show that only 19 percent of the grandparents are considered poor. "This crosses all kinds of lines," she says. "It's not just the problem of inner-city neighborhoods; it's in middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods." Several states, including Kentucky, Louisiana and Ohio, have met the challenge with special counseling, help lines, daycare and public assistance. Boston is home to GrandFamilies, the first housing facility in the country designed specifically for grandparent-headed households. "There is so much courage and plain flat heroism these grandparents display," says Hollidge. "I get the question all the time: 'Why do grandparents do this?' I answer, 'Because they love their grandchildren.' It's not because they had so much fun doing it the first time."
Ask Jean Wallace. Shuffling with a cane to a weekly grandparents' support-group meeting two bus rides away from her modest duplex in New York City's Coney Island, the 72-year-old widow wasn't planning on raising Shayne, her 13-year-old grandson. "I had no interest in doing this," says the retired teacher's associate. "If it weren't for him, I'd still be working. I loved my job." But Wallace assumed care of Shayne days after his birth, when Harlem Hospital found traces of cocaine in his blood. The baby's mother dropped out of sight in 1989, and Shayne's father—Wallace's son Kelvin, 40, who works for a printing company—had only intermittent contact with the boy until recently, when he moved in with his mother and son.
"When I brought home Shayne, I thought it would be a breeze," Wallace says. "But when you get to be 72, it's a hard time raising a 13-year-old." Especially one diagnosed as emotionally disturbed, with vast reserves of pent-up anger. "He yells at me every time I ask him to do something," she says. That's not uncommon. "Kids often don't act out with their parent because they're afraid that will push the parent away," says Sylvie de Toledo. "They know the grandparent is not going to be pushed away. That's why they're an easy target."
Even in placid circumstances there is a Rip Van Winkle effect as grandparents find themselves in a world far different from the one in which they brought up their kids. "Usually when grandparents call us, they are crying for hours, wanting us to help them sort things out," says Rolanda Pyle, director of the Grandparent Resource Center in Manhattan. "They have a lot of problems with homework. They don't understand computers. And the way grandparents raised kids [with spanking] is not really acceptable today."
Loraine Pearson of Denver says her ordeal began six years ago when her daughter Cindy, then 20 and single, refused to take her 8-month-old triplets, Krista, Kaitlyn and Katherine, who were born premature and sickly, to a doctor's appointment. "You can't make me," her mother recalls Cindy saying before she stormed out of the house. Pearson, 52, and her husband, Pete, 56, have raised the girls ever since. "I wanted to beat the living daylights out of her, I really did," Pearson says of Cindy, who has been diagnosed as clinically depressed.
Pearson had cause to be upset. She and Pete had already uprooted their lives to care for Cindy's older daughter, Rebecca, now 9. She had given up her job as an administrative assistant in the chancellor's office at the University of California at Berkeley, and the couple had moved back to her native Colorado, where Pete could better support them as a commercial painter. She says her daughter—who was from a first marriage and is now married with a fifth child, Jordan, 2—doesn't visit her other girls often enough. "The only time she comes around is if she needs something," says Pearson.
In some cases, grandparenting even extends to great-grandparenting. Six years ago retired social worker Anne Stokes of Boston received a call from the Massachusetts department of social services: Her granddaughter's 10-month-old baby, Kadijah, needed someone to care for her. Her granddaughter Janell Stokes wasn't up to it—understandably, perhaps, since she was only 13. "I put the shade up, looked into the heavens and said, 'Dear God, what do I do?' " recalls Stokes, 71. "I got on the phone and said, 'Bring me the baby.' "
Once Kadijah learned to walk, her great-grandmother's high-rise became too dangerous for her. So Stokes moved to Boston's GrandFamilies House, home to 26 low-income families. There she has a two-bedroom apartment outfitted for young and old—with grab bars in the bathroom and windows with childproof guards.
Over a year ago there was an addition to the Stokes ménage: granddaughter Dawnisha, now 12. "One Sunday afternoon the doorbell rang and there she was," Stokes recalls. Her grandmother says that Dawnisha had walked across town to be with her because she was so unhappy at home with her father—Stokes's son Joey, 40—and his girlfriend. Stokes has since gained legal custody of both children. "I love my grandma. She's both a toughie and a softie," says Dawnisha. "Sometimes Kadijah and I get on her nerves. But she treats me better than my parents."
In Boston's working-class Dorchester section, there are occasional shootings, so child care includes learning how to stay out of harm's way. "We drop to the floor," Kadijah says. "Dawnisha lies on me, and Nana is on top. And if someone starts shooting, we play dead."
By contrast, Caley Richeson's story began in a middle-class neighborhood in Louisville. His mother, Nikki, had been hard to control from early adolescence, according to his grandmother. "There was drinking, drugs and sex. You name it," recalls Richeson, who sent Nikki to an all-girl Catholic high school to no avail. "We would find empty cups under her bed that smelled like alcohol," says Richeson. "Her friends used to come over, fix a drink and pass it through the window."
Things got worse when Nikki began dating a local boy who, she says, had had some scrapes with the law. Barely graduating from high school, she attended a commencement-night party in 1996 and didn't come home for five days. When she did, she announced she was pregnant. Her mother was furious. "I made the biggest mistake of my life. I threw her out of the house," she says. "I begged her to have an abortion."
Instead, Nikki moved in with her boyfriend and his parents. But she says that two weeks before her due date the boy threw her out, telling her he had another child on the way. "I guess I lived in a fairy-tale world," Nikki says now, "thinking that he and I would stay together and raise Caley, have a house, a car. But the reality was completely the opposite: He wasn't there at all."
Nikki gave birth to Caley in December 1996 and at first seemed to take motherhood seriously. "If the baby cried, she was up feeding him, changing him," Debbie says. Nikki also enrolled in community college and held down three part-time jobs, one at a church daycare center. When she was out, her mother, who had quit her human-resources job at Louisville Gas & Electric, looked after Caley. Debbie also gave up the hobby she loved, showing dogs. Dave, meanwhile, was resentful. "Ever since high school our lives were focused on trying to keep control of Nikki," he says. "When she moved out, it was like a big sigh of relief. Debbie wanted to finish her college degree. We made blueprints for a house in the country. Then, when she had the baby, Nikki took control of my life again."
It didn't help that she began partying, often, she says, staying out all night and blowing $150 to $200 on cocaine. "There were many times," Nikki concedes, "when Caley sat up and cried and said, 'Why is Nana putting me to bed? Why isn't Mama?' " Finally, in 1998, Nikki stayed away for five days. The Richesons were concerned for Caley—since they were not his legal guardians, they could not, for example, have him admitted to a hospital if they needed to—so Debbie called social services, which initiated a procedure declaring Nikki's absence abandonment. "It was probably the hardest phone call I ever had to make," says Debbie.
Nikki finally signed adoption papers in the fall of 1999. "The morning we went I kept saying, 'I am not signing that paper,' " she recalls. But she relented. Today Nikki, who has a year-old daughter, Destiny, is drug-free after rehab. She works as a bartender and plans to study nursing. She visits her son several times a month, though there is now a bit of a distance between them. "Sometimes it hurts," Nikki admits, "but when I walk into a room and see [Caley and Debbie] hugging and kissing, it makes me smile. It makes me happy to know he's happy and he's got a good life."
For her mother, there will always be a feeling of ambivalence. "To be honest, there are days I really resent my role," Debbie says, "when a girlfriend calls and tells me how she's just returned from a dog show and wishes I could have been there. Or when I want to do something and don't have the time or feel extremely tired. I think how I raised my daughter for 18 years. Why am I doing it again? It's not fair. But the feeling doesn't last. Caley's my grandson. I love him."
Joanne Fowler in New York City
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