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Grandparents on the Key Peninsula who find themselves caring for their grandchildren need not feel alone. A support group, organized by the Children’s Home Society of Washington (CHSW), is helping these unexpected “parents” cope.

Lori Mertens, a family advocate at CHSW, started the group five months ago. A woman caring for her grandson had recently moved from King County and came into the office. “You should start a kinship,” she said. Mertens got on her computer, found the Pierce County Kinship, and made some calls. The advice she got? “Just get started.” 

The group meets on the fourth Monday of each month from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at Evergreen Elementary School during the school year and at the CHSW offices at the Key Peninsula Civic Center during the summer. The structure is informal. Grandparents and grandchildren meet for a potluck. The children then go with child care providers for some planned activities while the grandparents meet to discuss a topic of interest, sometimes with an outside speaker. Topics have included wills, legal issues and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). “Mostly it’s supporting each other, a time to get together and vent a little,” Mertens said. 

Jud Morris, community manager, CHSW Key Peninsula Family Resource Center, noted that these grandparents did not anticipate becoming caregivers, and that the impact on their lives is significant. They had not planned for the economics of raising another generation, and their own health and energy as they age can be a problem. 

“We wanted to develop support for the grandparents and more enhanced services for the children as well,” Morris said. “The children often have a higher need for learning support – perhaps from prenatal exposure to drugs, but also due to ACEs.”

As reported in the June 2018 Atlantic, the number of grandparents caring for their grandchildren has doubled in the last fifty years. In the last five years that number has increased by seven percent, in part due to the opioid epidemic. Morris endorsed the connection to drug use. He said, “We noticed that, because of the opioid epidemic, there were a lot of grandparents raising their grandchildren. It was not hard to notice – it was a flashing red light.”

Mertens discussed the complexity of the issues facing these grandparents. While some families are disrupted by the opioid epidemic, others are affected by a parent’s serious illness. The children’s parents may be in and out of their lives or may be completely absent. A grandparent may be a single grandmother or may be part of a couple. Sometimes, if there are two grandparents in the home, they may not agree about the role they should play in their grandchildren’s lives. 

Legal custody is necessary both for financial assistance and for the ability to make medical or educational decisions. It can take months to go through the process of getting third party custody. Mertens pointed to a stack of paperwork an inch thick and said, “This is the paperwork we are doing for one family.” 

Mertens’s role in establishing and leading the support group is a natural progression from both her career and her life. She worked at the Henderson Bay High School day care – set up for the school’s teen parents – for 17 years before coming to CHSW a year ago. “I always wanted to have a support group for grandparents for the Henderson Bay kids, but never had the time to form one,” she said. Mertens has also helped parent her own grandson, now 18. Due to a financial crisis, his mother could no longer care for him and he moved in with Mertens five years ago. Because his mom is still very much a part of his life, the situation is not quite like that of most of the grandparents in the support group, but the fact that she has been in their shoes is helpful. 

Mertens and Morris said that there is room for additional families. They can register by calling the CHSW office at 253-884-5433. Funding for the support group has been provided by the Gig Harbor Rotary and the Key Peninsula Lions Club. 

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