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More grandparents step forward to save grandchildren from foster care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 30, 2012 - Josephine Oliver's timing couldn't have been better. She was part of the housekeeping crew at Shriners Hospital for Children in St. Louis County and hoped to get promoted to nurse attendant.

On her way to speak to the head nurse about the job opening, Oliver heard a baby crying and saw the head nurse and others crowding around, trying to pacify the child.

"It was crying, crying, crying," Oliver remembers the incident from 1987. "Everybody was trying to stop the crying, but nobody could."

She stepped forward and asked: "Can I hold the baby for a minute?"

She re-enacts the scene of her cradling the infant and eventually, to the amazement of others, "the baby stopped crying."

The next thing Oliver hears is the head nurse saying, "You got the position. You got the position!"

With her new job came an unofficial title that stuck: "Mama Jo." That's what nurses and others began to call her because she turned out to work well with children.  It's also the title that precedes her name on a plaque the hospital gave Oliver when she retired in 2009.

The moniker turns out to be especially appropriate these days. At age 73, she finds herself serving as Mama Jo to three of her grandchildren whose mom is incarcerated. The grandchildren will have lived with her a year in July.

Thinking about her situation and the choice she has made, Oliver jokes, "The mind is the first to go when you get as young as I am."

She is a short woman, with snow white hair and a hearty laugh, as she relates the ups and downs of rearing children at this late stage in her life. It wasn't a responsibility Oliver had expected, and yet her situation isn't unusual.

According to the Child Welfare League of America, more than 50,000 grandparents in Missouri have the primary responsibility for caring for their grandchildren. Of all Missouri children in kinship care in 2010, the league said nearly 74 percent were white, about 22 percent were black and about 3 percent were Hispanic.

Census data show that more than 15,000 St. Louis County children live with grandparents, along with nearly 8,000 in St. Louis and about 4,500 in St. Charles County. Not all these youngsters are without parents. Some households in the census data include more than one generation living under the same roof.

A report by The Annie E . Casey Foundation says the numbers are part of a growing trend of grandparents and other relatives stepping forward to raise children whose parents can no longer care for them. The foundation says this "time-honored tradition" is beneficial because it "helps protect children and maintains strong family, community, and cultural connections."

But the report also details some challenges these caregivers encounter:

  • They might have to contend with child trauma from parental separation and the emotional and behavioral issues tied to abuse or neglect.
  • They sometimes lack legal authority to enroll a child into school or get basic medical care since requirements for becoming foster parents aren't always applicable to kinship families.
  • They are more likely to be poor, single, older, less educated and unemployed. These factors make it difficult for them to take on extra responsibilities associated with raising a child.

The report adds that the responsibilities on kinship families are enormous. It urges public and private groups, and faith-based organizations as well, to do more to support these extended families. The report says some states are adopting more enlightened policies by using welfare assistance block grants to help relatives take in children instead of placing them in foster care. The foundation calls for making such policies part of a national agenda.
Groups monitoring the trend include Generations United, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. Its executive director, Donna Butts, says substance abuse appears to be the leading factor behind the growth in kinship care.

Other drivers, she says, include economic conditions that are forcing more parents to relocate to search for jobs while temporarily leaving their children behind; extended military deployments, which she said became common during U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and a parent's declining health or death.

She says one positive outcome of the trend is that "the welfare system is  beginning to work very hard to find kin first before children go into foster care. I think most people will agree that in most cases, it's in the best interest of the child to find a relative to live with."

That's the philosophy of Oliver, the grandmother raising three grandchildren. After the children's mother was incarcerated, the youngsters were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, who decided she lacked the stamina to care for them.

"We went to court and I asked the judge if I could have the kids," Oliver said. "I did this because it was something that needed to be done. I did not want them to be raised in different spaces and different places and not know each other."

She says life hasn't been easy since her husband died five years ago. A Vietnam-era veteran, he reportedly died from complications of Agent Orange, a defoliant used during the war.

She has four grown sons but says the task of raising the three grandchildren is her own. The three grandchildren are Kyleaha or KK, age 5; Keith or LJ, 4; and Kiemeisha or Me Me, 3.

On the afternoon that a reporter visited the family, the two granddaughters were playing on the sidewalk under the watchful eye of an uncle, while the grandson, LJ, played with blocks on a child's table in the living room. Oliver looked at LJ's bright round face and told him to go outside, too, before she says raising three grandchildren full-time is hardly a cakewalk.

"It's a big challenge," she says. "I have to get Me Me up every morning and take them all to school. Sometimes one of my sons comes by and takes them, but he has a job. That means I usually can't just get them ready and lay back down."

But her mood shifts as she turns to the fun days. Every other Saturday, Oliver and a girlfriend, a woman in her 60s, load up the kids and take them to movies, followed by a stop at Burger King.

"Then, on opposite weekends, my girlfriend and I find someone to baby sit because we go out, go shopping, go on the (gaming) boat and enjoy ourselves," she says.

Her home, on a relatively quiet street across from West Florissant on the north side, is crowded with items that stir memories of her own children and her late husband. One item stands out because it all but overwhelms the living room. It's a grandfather clock. Looking at it prompts her to remember its purchase grew out of an on-and-off conversation she'd been having with her husband.

"I always told him that I wanted a grandfather's clock," she says, "so we finally picked this one."

But he died in 2007 before the clock was delivered.

"I wind it up every Sunday."

Maybe the weekly gesture is her way of keeping alive memories and old dreams of a life of leisure after retirement -- without any thought of raising another family.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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