Defining the Grandma Effect

The role of grandmothers, those often underappreciated backup caregivers in so many millions of families, has already been spotlighted by the nation's incoming first family.

President-elect Barack Obama's late maternal grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, whom Obama affectionately called "Toot," helped raise him as a youngster in Hawaii.

Throughout his campaign, Obama credited much of his success to Dunham's love and devotion during the years he spent with her in Honolulu. Dunham fell ill in late October, and died on the eve of the election.

Now that the Obamas are headed to the White House, Michelle Obama's mother, Marian Robinson, will be making the move as well. Family friends have told the New York Times that the Obamas relied on Robinson to care for Malia and Sasha Obama while their parents were out campaigning.

Robinson, a widow and retired bank secretary from the South Side of Chicago, will follow the Obamas to Washington D.C. to support the first family, according to the Obamas' family friend Verna Williams.

None of this is anything new or unusual to American families who have integrated grandmoms and granddads into their households, especially to assist with or sometimes take over child care.

Of course, the Obamas are by all accounts an intact and nurturing family, and they don't use a nanny to take care of their two young daughters -- they use grandma.

But for kids whose parents are absent, the role of grandparents is a critically important one to child welfare experts, as well as a source of ongoing debate.

In the past few years, researchers have begun to study the "grandma effect": the unique psychological benefits of having grandparents care for a child when parents can't. Last week, a study at Johns Hopkins found that children are half as likely to suffer injuries under a grandparent's care. Other studies have linked grandparents' care to better grades and fewer behavioral problems.

"For a long time, there's been a fairly controversial debate going on in child welfare circles about where to place children," said Dr. David Rubin, a pediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia who has studied the child welfare system.

Some said kin is best, and "there were other folks who cynically questioned whether the apple fell far from the tree," said Rubin.

What Happens Under Grandparents' Care?

In the year 2000, childcare experts discovered an estimated 2.4 million grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren full-time, a 55 percent increase since 1990.

"I saw the '90s as the decade of single parents, I think this decade is the decade of kin," said Rubin. With such an increase in inter-generational caretaking, Rubin said there was still a question in many child welfare workers' minds: "Could we assure their safety and their well-being in the care of relatives?"

Pat Owens, a grandmother in Maryland, faced this cynicism when her daughter's child was taken by social services.

"We had a grandchild who was born, unbeknownst to us, and adopted before we knew of it," said Owens, who now works for the advocacy group, GrandFamilies of America.

Once she did hear of it, Owens said she quickly moved to reclaim her grandson. Now Owens, a grandmother of nine, is raising her 12-year-old grandson.

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