Feb. 27, 2007 -- 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.
'I Will Die Believing in Him'
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."
'My Dad Used to Be My Hero'
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."
And despite his best intentions, Lennon couldn't escape his past. Within weeks, he became frustrated with his job search. "What do I put on my job application?" he wondered. He had no driver's license, no job history and had been convicted of two felonies. "It's really hard for me," he admitted.
Old patterns started to emerge, and Lennon started to stay out at night. The less Lennon was around, the more Erika seemed to resent her father's attempts at discipline. Two months after Lennon's return, Erika was suspended for skipping school.
"My dad used to be my hero," Erika said. "I used to be able to talk to him whenever I needed to, tell him everything and anything." But now she says things are different. "He's just changed, and I don't exactly [know] what it is."
'These Are Kids That Have a Chance'
The same day Erika was suspended, McGonegal noticed that her son, who had no driver's license and no money, had acquired a car. To McGonegal, this was a sure sign Lennon had returned to his old ways.
"When I pulled up and saw the car I was like, 'that's it, that's it, that's the indicator right there, that's the icing on the cake,'" she said, "'that's when our life falls apart, when a vehicle comes into this place.'"
Erika was also furious with her father. "The fact is, Dad, you don't have a license, No. 1. No. 2, the car is illegal. So, you want to go out and do something illegal? Why the hell shouldn't I? And I have to be the one that's grounded … and I'm sick and tired of it, 'cause I don't deserve it!"
McGonegal began to think she's made a terrible mistake. "These are kids that have a chance," she told Lennon. "I want them to have a chance."
But McGonegal still couldn't bring herself to banish her child from her life.
"How do you say, 'Go away, get out of my life?' I'm getting older. Every time he hugs me, I keep thinking this could be the last hug I ever get. How do I just say, 'Go away, go die in the street.' I can't do that."
History Repeating Itself
The rift between Erika and her father continued to grow, and Erika started staying out more and more. Lennon warned his daughter that she was heading down a dangerous path. "You're following my road. What makes you think that it's gonna lead out somewhere different?," he said. "You're following right behind me. What, you think that it's gonna lead out to some magical place? I'm lucky that I had my mom … so that I had a place to come to. … Once she's gone, God knows what I'm gonna have, you're not gonna have somebody to run home to."
Erika ultimately ran away several times, and found out she'd become pregnant by her 20-year-old boyfriend, whose nickname is Kiss. Kiss wanted her to have the baby. McGonegal vowed that she wouldn't care for another generation, but she was torn.
"She has to realize and I'm being very serious," McGonegal said. "I'm eventually going to sell this house and get myself a small apartment. I cannot continue to be caregiver, because my own health is too fragile. I have too many things going on that no way am I going to take another child. I have to detach myself at this point."
"I can't do it," McGonegal told her granddaughter. "I love you. I love the baby, but I can't provide for you. I can't even provide for myself."
Grandparents March on Washington
When things got especially difficult for McGonegal, she turned to Light. The two women met at a support group meeting in 1997, and they eventually decided to start their own support group for the state of Delaware, where an estimated 7,000 grandparents are caring for grandchildren. The support group, Grandparents United Delaware, holds meetings, lobbies state legislators for more rights and support, and publishes a newsletter.
In September, the women boarded a bus to Washington, D.C. There, they met up with thousands of other grandparents and relatives raising children, for a rally on the steps of the Capitol. The purpose was to urge states and the federal government to grant more rights and aid to a growing number of grand-families. Earlier this month, Sens. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, reintroduced the Kinship Caregiver Support Act, which, in previous attempts, has never made it out of the Senate Finance Committee.
Back in Delaware, 17-year-old Erika was about to give birth. Erika and her grandmother fixed up her room, and were ready for the new arrival. McGonegal went with Erika to the hospital, where Erika's daughter, Leah, was born this past Nov. 17, on McGonegal's 58th birthday.
But a few days later, without telling her grandmother, Erika left the hospital with Kiss, his mother and the baby. To gain custody of Leah, McGonegal would have to go to court, and says she is not ready to do that.
'I Feel Like an Outsider'
In another troubling twist, Lennon ended up back in prison, picked up for driving without a license, in an unregistered automobile, while intoxicated. He was offered a plea, with a year of home confinement, but he rejected the offer. He would have had to "concede that I'm a habitual criminal and plead to a felony, and I'm not ready to do that," he said.
In an interview from prison a few days ago, Lennon reflected on his life. "I feel like an outsider when I'm trying to participate in society. … When I'm running around with the people who are doing the things that I'm doing, I feel like a king." When he acts outside the law, he says, "I don't feel inadequate. I don't feel insecure. I don't feel any of those feelings that I feel when I'm trying to participate in society."
Lennon admitted he started to drink and take drugs to numb his pain and avoid responsibility. "My last three months, I wasn't even in my house. I didn't want to see anything that reminded me of what a failure I was." He blames himself for Erika's downward spiral.
"I haven't behaved like a father," he said. "I haven't been a role model for them to follow." Asked whether he felt guilty for leaving his mother to raise his children, he said, "I'm so guilty of everything … It's like, how full can a glass of water be if you keep pouring in it and just overflows? It can't get anymore full."