Raising Grandchildren series | Part 2
Grandparent families in Australia are mostly retired, single grandmothers, living on pensions.
Raising Grandchildren is a series looking at the challenges faced by elderly couples and singles who have children in their full-time care.
Joan* did what many grandparents across Australia choose to do.
She babysat her granddaughter Tess to help her daughter out.
It started off as changing a few nappies or taking care of Tess while the mother worked.
Everything ran smoothly until it did not, when the mother’s drinking habits started to take over.
Joan received a phone call from police early one morning; her daughter was walking down the middle of a busy suburban road while holding her toddler.
Tess, now 14, believes she was about three and can remember her mother slamming a hand through glass.
“It was the beginning of the end really… the alcohol and drugs get into her brain and she leaves us,” Joan said.
Tess tells of being left at schools past closing time, of being home alone while her mother drank at the pub, of being hungry and calling Joan to bring her food, and of verbal assaults.
The decision for Tess to permanently move in with Joan came two years ago.
“There would always be different blokes in the house… Tess would ring me up and ask me to come and get her,” Joan said.
“How could you have a young, impressionable child there with a different bunch of strangers? I’ve always just thought if I didn’t have her, what would happen?”
Grandparents like Joan are on the rise across Australia, caring for babies, toddlers, tweens and teenagers.
Parents slip into routines of substance abuse, poverty, family violence, child neglect and abuse, or struggle with their mental health, and grandparents step in, willingly or not, to care for kin.
They are more likely to be single, female, have poor health, and lower incomes, and often live on pensions of less than $500 a week.
The 2016 Census shows more than 60,000 grandparent-led families exist in Australia.
Latest data on formal kinship care show it is the fastest growing form out of home care in Australia, with 48 per cent of children in the formal care system living with kin compared to 38 per cent in foster care.
Tasmanian out of home care data from 2018 shows the state bucking this national trend, with just a quarter of children in out of home kinship care.
But these figures do not tell the entire story.
Grandparents Australia chief executive Anne McLeish, who is also the founder of Kinship Carers Victoria, said formal data is the tip of the iceberg.
She said large unknown numbers of grandchildren are living with grandparents under informal family arrangements, this was especially so in Tasmania.
They raise grandchildren without court orders and without government financial assistance, living on minimal incomes and dipping into superannuation nest eggs. “We don’t know exactly how many there are,” Mrs McLeish said.
“A lot of arrangements are not known to [child protection] and a lot of these families simply don’t want to be known. They don’t want government involved because they think the children might be removed from them and they don’t want to run that risk.”
Two Senate inquiries have addressed the issues faced by grandparent carers, suggesting easier access to government payments, increased access to training, respite and psychologist services, and reviews into legal and other support for informal grandparent carers.
Baptcare officer Debbie Smith runs a state-government funded program in Launceston that offers a support service for grandparent and relative carers and knows all too well the challenges grandparents face.
Financial difficulty, social isolation, psychological and medical stress, family breakdown and the threat of violence from disgruntled family members.
She said sometimes they deal with guilt in terms of questioning where they went wrong in raising their biological children, others may deal with expensive and stressful legal proceedings.
“They don’t get recognition and sometimes they just feel forgotten,” she said.
Joan became a primary carer to Tess in a world of rising costs, contemporary education systems and an increasing online society.
“They don’t get recognition and sometimes they just feel forgotten.”
Debbie Smith, Baptcare
Once she sorted Centrelink and obtained the relevant statutory declarations and signatures from her daughter, she described the financial support as a blessing.
“I would swing my funds to pay for bills where I could but my savings just sort of plummeted … once I got that extra support it helped us immensely,” she said.
The retired grandmother is always positive when it comes to raising Tess, and said neither of them are disadvantaged.
She tires more easily in her second round of raising children, and as Tess enters her teenage years the challenges of schoolyard battles, raging hormones and grabs for adult independence are already presenting.
“But on saying that, I have to say that raising your grandchild is more pleasurable,” Tess said.
“The love that you have for your children is unbelievable but the love that you have for your grandchildren far surpasses, honestly, it really, really does.
“I suppose you have more time to spend with them now than what you did with your own kids. And Tess has helped me to keep going … she has given me a focus, something to go on with.”
- Names have been changed for legal reasons.