The skipped generation: grandparents step in and become caregivers

By Jiayi Shi and Yanran Huang

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Missouri grandmother adopts her grandson after mom was murdered

Erica Jones’ daughter, Whitney Brown, was fatally shot in St. Louis on Aug. 15, 2015. Ja’Keem Jones, Brown’s son and Erica’s grandson, witnessed his mother’s death when he was 4 years old.

Erica and Ja’Keem live in Florissant, Missouri, near St. Louis. Ja’Keem is 7 now. After Brown passed, Ja’Keem’s custody would be transferred to the state.

Erica was not permitted to take care of her grandson legally. At that time, doctors refused to see Ja’Keem since Erica was not his legal guardian to bring him to the hospital.

Being afraid of losing Ja’Keem, Erica decided to petition the court for adoption for the legal guardianship.

“That was one of the hardest things that I had to do because I don't want to take away from being his nana,” Erica said.

According to Erica, she had to pay close to $10,000 for the adoption process in total, including $350 just for filing a petition for court.  Even with free legal assistance, the payment was a burden to her because she was on a single-family income.  

In Missouri, there are 119,854 children under 18 fostered by their grandparents or other relatives and 50,839 grandparents responsible for their grandchildren who live with them, according a report from grandfamilies.org.

Similar to Erica’s case, many of these grandparents struggle in obtaining grandchildren’s legal custody after the parents leave because the cost of legalization is expensive.

Mary Beck is a professor of clinical law in the University of Missouri School of Law. She said that in general the total fee of adoption or guardianship is more than $10,000, which many grandparents cannot afford.

According to Beck, three parts are included in the total fee of adoption or guardianship.

●      The range of filing fee is from $200 to $700.

●      The attorney fee to do an adoption is about $4,000 to $5,000.

●      The required home study to petitioning custodian costs $1,200.

But having legal custody of children is necessary for their grandparents when the birth parents leave their roles for a long time. 

“It's really important for the grandparents to get legal custody of the child through guardianship or adoption so that troubled parents can't disrupt the child's life over and over again,” Beck said.

Erica obtained Ja’Keem’s legal custody in October after the one-and-half-year petition process in court.

“It is a long process but it is definitely worth the wait,” Erica said.

Erica Jones sits on the stairs in front of her house and helps her grandson Ja’Keem Jones to tie his shoe on Sunday, Oct.28, 2018 in Florissant, Missouri. “I’m the grandmother that always has our grandkids on matter what,” Erica said. “We’re very close-knit family so we are always with one another.” (Photo by Yanran Huang)

Erica Jones sits on the stairs in front of her house and helps her grandson Ja’Keem Jones to tie his shoe on Sunday, Oct.28, 2018 in Florissant, Missouri. “I’m the grandmother that always has our grandkids on matter what,” Erica said. “We’re very close-knit family so we are always with one another.” (Photo by Yanran Huang)

Ja’Keem Jones sits on the tree watching the ball in the yard on Sunday, Oct.28, 2018 in Florissant, Missouri. “It’s fun,” Erica said. “He’s always all over the place and curious.” (Photo by Jiayi Shi)

Ja’Keem Jones sits on the tree watching the ball in the yard on Sunday, Oct.28, 2018 in Florissant, Missouri. “It’s fun,” Erica said. “He’s always all over the place and curious.” (Photo by Jiayi Shi)

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The skipped generation: grandparents step in and become caregivers

It was March 2016 when Tammy Kelliehan got a call from her daughter-in-law. She was arrested for driving in the wrong side of the highway. The police tried to pull her car over, but she wouldn’t stop. Eventually, the police were forced to break her tires in order to halt the vehicle. Her son Jason Randolph Jr. was sitting in the back seat.

It was at that moment when Kelliehan decided she had to take control of her grandchild’s care. But, she wouldn’t just be taking care of Randolph, her biological grandson, she would also be taking in his three siblings. She knew her daughter-in-law, the mother of her grandchildren, couldn’t take care of them due to her struggles with alcoholism.

“And with that, a lot of bad choices came along,” Kelliehan said. “But the children suffered a great deal from those bad choices, and her older kid has had to pick up the role of caring for the younger ones, being a provider. Just protecting them from a lot of things when mom couldn't. That just hurts a child who had to grow up way before her time.”

Taking care of the children isn’t easy for Kelliehan.  

Even though Kelliehan can have some financial aid from Kinship Care, it’s still not enough. The three youngest kids have fetal alcohol syndrome due to their mother drinking during the pregnancy. On top of that, the two boys also have genetic disorders.

“Some of these parents are raising children with special needs,” said Jacqueline Benson, assistant professor in the MU Department of Human Development and Family Science. “Whether they have a developmental disability or they're suffering from mental health issues that can be an added challenge for sure for any parent, but particularly grandparents who are not familiar with any of those issues.”

Kelliehan said she went to school for special education, trying to know more about disabilities. She said the fetal alcohol syndrome affects boys different than the girls. Girls will have lots of high anxiety while boys will have more problems like learning delays, which requires a lot of care.

“The future for them is going to be difficult,” Kelliehan said. “There are tons of things they’re going to move ahead but whatever they learned, a few months later they are going to relearn, and this is going to be constant.”

“I don’t know what to do with that information,” she said.

Amy Hoffmann, the family support specialist in ParentLink, said the biggest thing grandparents need is money.

“By the time that they have raised their children, they may or may not be working.” Hoffmann said. “They certainly have their future planned out with no children intact. So many of them have to use their retirement or their savings just to try to help raise that second family that they have.”

At first, Kelliehan took on the financial responsibility to taking care of her grandchildren on her own. She didn’t rely on any outside resources. The family lived paycheck by paycheck. She asked church members for child’s clothes and food. Though it was as hard, Kelliehan said she didn’t give up because she loves the kids.

As the kids grow up, Kelliehan and her husband John grow older, they are more aware of the age gap. They can’t be with these kids forever. And she worries most about their disabilities, especially the 11-year-old TeJionte Lewis.

Lewis is in a residential center in Marshall, Missouri getting treatment. Kelliehan said the boy might never be able to live by himself in his whole life due to fetal alcohol syndrome and the genetic disorders. Lewis’ biological mom has many family members but none of them contacted the boy, so he has no one except Kelliehan.

“I'm concerned more about his future,” Kelliehan said. “Because if anything was to happen to my husband and I, we don't know what will happen to him.”

But every time Kelliehan looks at the kids or hear them saying “Mima, I love you so much,” she feels it’s worth it.

“We are mixed-up family,” Kelliehan said. “We are not perfect, but we are family. And they know it.”

Tammy Kelliehan, grandmother of four grandchildren, accompanies her granddaughter Idelayjha Lewis-Scott sitting on the sofa and watching the TV show before having dinner on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 in Columbia, Missouri. Kelliehan laughs and strokes Lewis-Scott’s head. Lewis-Scott is the one grandchild who calls Kelliehan “Mimi”. Other grandchildren call her “Mima”. (Photo by Yanran Huang)

Tammy Kelliehan, grandmother of four grandchildren, accompanies her granddaughter Idelayjha Lewis-Scott sitting on the sofa and watching the TV show before having dinner on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018 in Columbia, Missouri. Kelliehan laughs and strokes Lewis-Scott’s head. Lewis-Scott is the one grandchild who calls Kelliehan “Mimi”. Other grandchildren call her “Mima”. (Photo by Yanran Huang)

Tammy Kelliehan takes a nap while watching the show on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Her husband John Kelliehan sits behind the sofa after he finished cooking. Tammy and John abandon part of their private time to take care of their four grandchildren. But they are glad to do so. “We want (what) was in the best interest of the children,” Kelliehan said. “We want them to be happy and safe.” (Photo by Yanran Huang)

Tammy Kelliehan takes a nap while watching the show on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. Her husband John Kelliehan sits behind the sofa after he finished cooking. Tammy and John abandon part of their private time to take care of their four grandchildren. But they are glad to do so. “We want (what) was in the best interest of the children,” Kelliehan said. “We want them to be happy and safe.” (Photo by Yanran Huang)