“I took it because I could take care of Jacob,” she said.
Today, grandmother and grandson share the North Broad Street home where Keithan raised three sons, including Jacob’s dad, Larry Miller. Jacob, now 20, attends Whitney High School East in Hamden, works and is looking forward to his first semester at Middlesex Community College Meriden Center in the fall.
At 82, Keithan sews to earn extra spending money for her and Jacob, and is an active participant and volunteer in the Meriden Grandparents Connection, a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren.
“She saved him,” said Rita Kowalchik, a social worker for the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, who runs the group. “Ann did her best by him.”
The number of grandparents caring for grandchildren nationwide has risen steadily since 2000 to 2.9 million, with a particularly steep spike during the 2007-2008 recession. The reasons range from drug addiction, military service, financial problems, incarceration, mental health issues and the death of a parent.
Joanne Skurat runs a similar support group in Southington, formed by the Calendar House and Youth Services for grandparents and relative caregivers. The group was founded because of the growing need 10 years ago.
Skurat raised two granddaughters since birth who are now 18 and 22. She said the public is finally starting to understand the unique challenges facing grandparents and relative care givers because people are no longer reluctant to talk about it.
“It was less known 20 years ago,” Skurat said. “People were embarrassed to say their children failed.”
Keithan shares Jacob’s story but is careful with certain details.
Keithan’s son Larry Miller married Jacob’s mother Tina after Jacob’s birth, but the marriage only lasted one year. Jacob spent most of his childhood going back and forth from his grandmother’s North Broad Street home to his mother’s home in New Britain.
Jacob was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and had some medical problems. He had difficulty controlling his anger, would act out and was demanding and defiant.
“It was hard, but I knew I could handle it,” Keithan said. “My mother said I was one of the most patient people she knew and why I became a nurse.”
During Jacob’s childhood, Keithan was made his foster parent once, and he lived with her and his father for months.
In 2004, Jacob’s father, Keithan’s son, died of a heart attack in his sleep. Jacob was 10 years old and asleep in the same room.
“I woke him up and sent him upstairs,” Keithan said. “There was so many people here.”
She joined the support group soon after her son’s death, because she knew she needed help.
In the years that followed, Jacob continued to spend time at his mother’s house in New Britain and Keithan’s home in Meriden.
When Keithan went on vacation, Jacob went too. In 2010, Jacob’s mother Tina Miller died and the state Department of Children and Families granted Keithan full custody in the hospital.
“He’s been traumatized,” Keithan said. “But the fight and the back and forth was over.”
Keithan’s story is typical of many heard in the group of about 10 grandmothers who attend the grandparent caregiver meetings, Kowalchik said.
According to DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt, the department looks to family members first when removing a child from a home. Kleeblatt didn’t have data specific to grandmothers but said a greater number of children in state care are living with a relative or someone else they know.
The department has stepped up its efforts to place children with grandparents and relatives in 2011 and has eliminated some barriers.
“As of March 1, 2014, there are 311 more children living in kinship care, compared to January 2011,” Kleeblatt said.
Keithan is protective and possessive about the grandparent group members and refers to one as “my newest member.” The members are women, some married, but most single. Some have adult children who are incarcerated or the other parent is incarcerated, or has substance abuse or financial problems. Some of the parents still live in the grandparents’ home but many gradually move away and return to visit as a special aunt or uncle, Kowalchik said.
“It’s sad, because the children really do love their parents,” Kowalchik said.
She tries to make the meetings fun and members plan holiday events and outings. They also have guest speakers on a variety of topics of interest. Kowalchik said she knows other groups might offer more clinical training to address the special needs many of these children have, or navigate the complex family court system, but she takes her direction from the group.
“Some meetings we talk, but it’s kind of just a fun group,” Kowalchik said. “This is such a diverse group ... It’s a total mixed bag. But it’s not always about grandchildren. I try to let them take the lead.”
What members have in common is that none of them signed on for the role, but many accepted their grandchildren to keep them in the family and out of foster care with strangers. Many are financially strapped, and their physical health is more limited.
“Most of the time, they’re dealing with special needs children and they have to navigate the system,” Kowalchik said.
Support in Southington
Skurat’s Southington group of about 20 members ranges from “very low income to very, very high incomes,” she said. She tries to book speakers who can help with a particular problem parents might be facing. Children’s homework is different today than it was 20 years ago, technology and social networking might also be foreign to a grandparent.
She’s had speakers discuss how to recognize signs a child might be susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse, and how to get a child to sleep in his or her own bed.
Skurat has also booked politicians who learn about some of the financial challenges faced by grandparents. Grandchildren who didn’t go through the DCF system years ago, weren’t eligible for a foster care stipend.
They also aren’t allowed to receive a free college education and board at the University of Connecticut available to children in the state foster care system.
Both Skurat’s granddaughters are honor roll students eligible for Pell Grants because they did not live with their parents.
But the grants don’t cover all expenses and the girls are limited to attending community colleges. Skurat, who was recently laid off, said she has already spent her retirement savings.
Skurat said she understands that decisions made 20 years ago could have made a difference today.
She vows to continue to advocate for more foster care funding and other supports for other grandparents and relative caregivers.
Despite the challenges, there are also the rewards of raising children with the benefit of lessons learned from the first goaround. Some grandparents report it keeps them feeling young at the playground, parks or attending parties and children’s events.
There is also the reward of knowing the child is in a safe, secure home and thriving.
“I have two excellent girls with high honors,” Skurat said. “They’re respectful. For me, that’s the biggest reward.”
‘We cry, we laugh’
Because the Meriden group has been around for 14 years, many of the members, such as Keithan, are facing transitional concerns as the child exits one system and enters adulthood.
Group members rally and help find answers and ideas for each other. Keithan helped a professional grandmother find a school that could meet her grandson’s behavioral and academic needs. She also listened when one grandmother who is taking care of a 3-year-old during her mother’s incarceration expressed her fear social workers will come take the child she’s grown so attached to.
“We cry, we laugh,” Keithan said.
The grandparents must also face their feelings about the adult children who changed their lives because, for whatever reason, they couldn’t effectively care for their children.
Kowalchik points to a 70-year-old grandmother with two special needs grandsons in their 20s and her daughter who left their care in her lap.
“She’s angry. She’s living this not-very-nice life in her 70s,” Kowalchik said. “But they never resent the children. They do it with true caring and love.”
Jacob enjoys graphic arts and computer technology. He also likes music and picks out songs to play at dinner time. Keithan’s son Gerald Miller from San Diego moved in with the family four years ago to help his mother.
“She deserves every accolade you can get,” Jacob said. “We take each other out to dinner. It’s a lax type of relationship. We let people know we care about each other but we don’t go over the top. We do nice things for each other to show the gratitude I have for having such a wonderful person in my life.”
Despite her concerns about Jacob’s college courseload, Keithan said she feels fortunate. Her rewards are watching him grow to be a productive, caring young man.
“I’m lucky,” she said. “He’s a good boy.”
Another reward, Skurat said, is the children “knowing what you’ve done for them” and that they were special enough to protect and keep in the family – despite the sacrifices.