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December 7, 2019

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette: YOU Inc. hosts brainstorming session on how to help ‘grandfamilies’

WORCESTER – Dependent grandchildren with trauma. Fixed retirement income or limited ability to work. Social safety-net programs that ignore their circumstances. Legal battles. Just plain being older and tired.

Grandparents raising grandchildren brought their challenges to U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern, D-Worcester, and U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Dorchester, on Saturday in a roundtable discussion on how legislators can best support “grandfamilies.”

“This is a big issue, and one that has not gotten a lot of attention,” McGovern told the dozen or so grandparents and advocates who gathered at YOU Inc.’s Family Resource Center in the Denholm building. “We have to do more.”

Pressley agreed.

“You are closest to the pain, and can offer the best solutions,” the congresswoman said. “That’s why we’re here.”

More than 30,000 grandparents in Massachusetts serve as the primary caregiver to their grandchildren, but they face unique challenges in providing that care.

McGovern and Pressley hope to introduce legislation next week that the former said will help address housing costs for grandfamilies by providing subsidies and also supporting local coordinators to help navigate challenges grandparents face in raising their grandchildren. McGovern also co-sponsored a bill that last year enacted a “one-stop shop of resources” for grandfamilies. An advisory council met in August for the first time to begin work on reforms.

But McGovern and Pressley wanted to know what else could be done.

“The bottom line is resources that are available to parents are not necessarily available to grandparents, and we need to figure out a way to change that,” McGovern said.

Participants in the roundtable had several suggestions.

Several grandparents talked of the financial costs of raising grandchildren, and how picking up a part-time or flexible job to try to make ends meet has made them ineligible for certain public benefits such as health insurance and Department of Transitional Assistance funds. But then child care costs or the cost of summer activities make a part-time job impossible.

“Financially, I’m at rock bottom,” said Kim Rockwood, co-founder and facilitator at Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of South Central Massachusetts. Rockwood recommended that organizations such as summer camps or nonprofits provide scholarships for grandparents raising grandkids.

Others spoke of difficulties with the courts and the Department of Children and Families as they try not only to raise their grandchildren but also support their children who have fallen on hard times.

“They provide nothing but difficulties for families who have lost kids,” said Laura Myers, head of a grandfamily, said of DCF. “It’s a vindictive, punishing system.”

Myers and others suggested better coordination among federal and state agencies who are tasked with working with families and who request mountains of paperwork.

“No one person knows how to do all that,” said Deb Dowd-Foley of Elder Services of Worcester Area.

Myers suggested that representatives of the agencies visit community or senior centers one day a week to assist grandfamilies. This sentence has been edited to correct the speaker.

“There has to be a place where grandparents can go,” Myers said.

And others spoke of the necessity of trauma-informed health and behavioral care, noting that the children, parents, and grandparent caregivers have often all endured trauma as their families are separated and reconfigured.

“The biological parents need a lot of help so children can go back to their parents,” said Dowd-Foley.

“We have trauma … for what has been happening with the kids,” Myers added.

McGovern recommended that the conversation continue, and that the roundtable reconvene on a regular basis.

“We hope that what we’re doing legislatively is proof of the power of your voices,” Pressley said in closing. “Everything you’re sharing today will certainly not fall on deaf ears.”