Defining the Grandma Effect

With grandma caregivers on the rise, doctors are discovering unique benefits.

November 6, 2008, 5:50 PM

Nov. 10, 2008 — -- 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.

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.

"I was a foster parent for 10 years, and I also had adopted children, so I'm not against foster parents," said Owens, "We're asking please don't put them in state custody; please save those foster homes for kids who have no family."

Yet, doctors and child advocates needed some convincing. Rubin said many questioned whether a person who raised an adult who had enough emotional troubles to lose a child to social services would be capable of raising a grandchild properly.

To study this, Rubin reviewed the emotional, physical and mental well-being of 1,309 U.S. children who were removed from their home by social services.

"At the time that I did the study, to be honest with you, I didn't know what I would find," said Rubin. "But we found that it really was way, way better, than children who went into non-relative foster care."

The study, which appeared this June in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, found children who were living with relatives had a 12 percent lower risk of behavioral problems than children who lived in foster care.

Yet, Rubin said data shows both children in foster care and permanently in their grandparents care are more likely to have problems than children living at home with both parents.

"It is true that many children happen to be in the care of grandparents do have problems," said Bert Hayslip, a professor of psychology at the University of North Texas at Denton.

"The problem is explicating its origin: none of the reasons grandparents take on the care of the grandchildren is good," said Hayslip, who studies grandparents who take care of their grandchildren. Most often death, imprisonment, sickness, or mental health issues land children into grandparents' care.

"You get the whole family environment that has been disrupted," said Hayslip.

Hayslip, who has written several books on the subject, has still found an improvement for the at-risk children if they are cared for by their grandparents rather than strangers.

Improved school performance, less reliance on welfare later on, and fewer "deviant" behaviors are all associated with grandmothers and grandparents care, according to Hayslip's research.

Yet for all the benefits grandparents can give to children who need care, it has only been in the last year that legislators have begun to address the issue.

"There were adoption benefits for foster parents who adopted, but not for kin," explained Rubin.

This October, Congress passed The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. The law offers states money to assist relatives who take over care for children taken into social services.

Mary Lee Allen, director of Child Welfare and Mental Health at The Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., said she continues to see need for this law.

Allen said she was struck watching what happened in Nebraska with the so-called safe haven law, where now 26 older children and teenagers have been abandoned at hospitals.

"There were a significant number of relatives who were coming forward with older children," said Allen. "Sometimes children are dumped with relatives without the relatives getting the support that they need."

According to Hayslip, grandparents caring for their grandchildren face significant financial burdens, generation gaps dealing with gender issues and dating, poor health and sometimes depression.

"What amazes me is that many of them manage to carry it off," said Hayslip. "Resilience is the piece of the puzzle that enables some to do well and transcend all of this stuff, and raise grandchildren who are happy and healthy."

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