Angelina Villacis can recall the exact time her grandson was born: 3:33 p.m., Nov. 21, 2009.
“I’ve loved him since the moment I knew he was coming,” the Palm Beach County resident says. “My daughter isn’t the maternal type, and I couldn’t imagine him being given up for adoption, so I took him in.”
In the weeks that followed, Villacis sat at the courthouse all day because she didn’t know how to start the process of becoming her grandchild’s legal guardian. “I was desperate, just crying, and that’s when I found Denise,” she says.
Denise Chin is the program director at the Kin Support Project at Families First of Palm Beach County. She estimates more than 10,000 Palm Beach County grandparents are in Villacis’s position.
“Many of the more than 20,000 children in Palm Beach County who are being raised by grandparents have been put in the situation suddenly because of a parent’s drug addiction, especially to opioids in recent years,” Chin says. “Other reasons include the death of a parent, the parent dealing with mental illness or the parent being incarcerated.”
While it can be a hardship for the grandparents and other relatives to raise children, it’s often a better option than the foster care system, according to child wellness advocates. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics cited evidence in a recent policy statement that it’s more beneficial for children to live with extended family rather than non-related foster parents.
However, Chin says these relatives cope with the following challenges and feelings:
• Intergenerational issues, such as balancing a teenager’s use of social media and technology
• The energy and patience an infant or toddler requires
• Anger and resentment regarding the biological parent (“Why can’t my daughter/son get their act together to raise their children who need them?”)
• Significant financial challenges on a fixed income
In turn, Chin says, the grandchildren might face emotions of loss, grief, separation, abandonment or disappointment. Some have suffered trauma, abuse or neglect. Still others might feel out of place at school by comparing themselves to their peers in traditional families.
Help in all forms
So where can these families find help in Palm Beach County? Fortunately, a solid network of support services is available, such as the Relative Caregivers Project through the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, funded by Children's Services Council of Palm Beach County, and the Kin Support Project of Families First. These programs offer families expert advice and help finding emotional, financial, legal and physical help.
For example, the Relative Caregivers Project provides free legal services for low-income people to help stabilize the new family and help maneuver through many choices and decisions, says Judith Migdal-Mack, an attorney with the Relative Caregivers Project.
“One of the choices the relatives have to make is what type of documents they will need so they can provide the proper care for the children,” Migdal-Mack says. “If the plan to keep the children is long-term, temporary legal custody will give the relatives the ability to enroll the children in school, obtain medical and educational records, consent to medical treatment and seek federal housing without terminating the parents’ rights. This document must be obtained in court.”
A limited power of attorney is sufficient for short-term care and doesn’t require court intervention, Migdal-Mack says.
The Relative Caregivers Project, at 561-655-8944, ext. 275, provides help with the following:
- Temporary legal custody
- Limited power of attorney
- Guardian advocacy
- Assistance to parents in designating a guardian for their child if they can’t care for them
The Kin Support Project, established in 2002, provides specialized social work services to kinship families, such as grandparents raising grandchildren, aunts and uncles raising nieces and nephews, adult siblings raising younger brothers and sisters. It also assesses family needs, be it financial, legal, health, educational, social or emotional/behavioral health.
The Kin Support Project, at 561-318-4224, provides:
- Counseling support
- Facilitation of monthly support groups for relative caregivers
- Parenting education and assistance in navigating various systems, such as Department of Children and Families
- School advocacy regarding children’s educational needs
- Connection to legal services
- Accessing health care and health insurance, as well as connection to individual and family emotional/behavioral health services
In fact, Villacis says she looks forward to the support group each month.
“Just interacting with the other grandparents and talking about what you’re going through, it feels really good,” she says. “These people have become like an extended family. It’s really comforting to know I’m not alone.”