According to the latest census figures, 6.7 million children in the United States are being raised by grandparents and other relatives. That's roughly one in 12 children, about 10 times the number of children in the U.S. foster care system. Despite these numbers, it's largely an epidemic hiding in plain sight.
"Primetime" first reported on the phenomenon 18 months ago, and after the report aired, ABC News received hundreds of e-mails from grandparents raising their grandchildren, and offering to share their stories. One e-mail came from two grandmothers in Delaware. They invited "Primetime" into their homes, and for the past year and a half, we followed their lives.
It begins -- as many stories of parents unable to raise their children do -- outside a prison. In October 2005, Ronnie Lennon was about to get out of jail. At 36 years old, Lennon had spent half of his life in prison on various charges. He had been on and off drugs for most of his adult life, and for the past decade, his two children -- Erika, 16, and Matthew, 13 -- had been raised by Lennon's 57-year-old mother, Nina McGonegal.
The children's mother had not been a reliable presence in their lives, either, so it was up to McGonegal, who survives on Social Security and a part-time job, to be mother and father to Erika and Matthew in her small house on the outskirts of Wilmington, Del. About a quarter of grandparents raising grandchildren live below the poverty line.
On that October day, full of hope and dread, McGonegal waited for her son, with granddaughter Erika at her side. McGonegal's friend Tina Light, who was also raising two of her grandchildren, advised McGonagel to cut ties with her son, as she had done with her daughter Jennifer. But against her better judgement and the advice of her friend, McGonegal had already made a fateful decision to let Lennon come home.
"He's my only child, and I will probably die believing in him," said McGonegal. "I'm not happy with him. I don't like him at times as a person, but when he's clean, I love him."
At first, McGonegal had high hopes for her son. He offered to help fix things around the house and to look for work, and he helped the kids with their homework.
"He's a great father when he's not using drugs," said McGonegal. "He's a fantastic father. The kids love him."
Erika was on the honor roll at school, and both children welcomed their father home. "They're just enjoying each other so much, and I sit back and I just know that, of course, this is the right thing," said McGonegal. "These are memories that they will cherish forever."
McGonegal and Light are just two of more than two-and-a-half million grandparents in similar situations. If the children they're raising were in foster care, their foster parents would receive on average, about $500 a month for each child. In Delaware, a grandparent receives $201 a month for the first grandchild, and $69 a month for the second child.
With her son home, McGonegal is happy to have some help raising two teenagers, and hopes her son will assist in keeping Erika focused on school and college. But it is not easy, Lennon admits. "It's very daunting to me … I'm 36 years old and I've never lived on my own. I've never supported myself in the traditional way, having a home, caring for myself and my children. I've never done it, not for a day."