WASHINGTON – Joyce Edwards came home to her small Edgewater apartment after a day managing the operations of an Anne Arundel County post office, cooked herself an early supper and was ready to retire for the day.
It was a typical end to a typical day for the 58-year old single grandmother. It would be her last typical day for a while.
About 7 p.m. on that April night, the phone rang. Edwards’ daughter and son-in-law had been arrested after a police raid found drugs in their Baltimore home, said a neighbor, who had the couple’s three children — two sons, aged 11 and 9, and a daughter barely 4 years old.
“The only thought that came to my mind was that I would have to bring them home with me,” Edwards said of her grandchildren, now without their parents. “But I wasn’t sure how we’d manage. I couldn’t really think at that time.”
Edwards did bring the children home, making her just one of the growing number of “caretaker relatives” in Maryland, many of them grandparents caring for the grandchildren that their own children left behind or forfeited to the state.
The Maryland Department of Human Resources said there were 2,634 caretaker relatives in the state as of August. State officials could not provide a comparative figure but they, along with advocates for the caretaker relatives, said they are certain that the number has increased rapidly over the past five years.
But while the numbers have increased, the level of state support for caretaker relatives has not, said advocates.
“Many of the grandparents and relatives who are now caretakers barely get a salary to take care of their own needs in the first place. But the state offers absolutely no respite to these people,” said Yvonne Matthews, a legal aide at the Kinship Power Team in Baltimore and the caretaker for her grandson.
State social service agencies disagree, saying they have been “doing a pretty good job” supporting grandparents and other relatives who find themselves suddenly thrust into back into the role of parent.
“The state is definitely reaching out to caretaker relatives,” said Myra White-Gray, kinship care program analyst at the Department of Human Resources’ Social Services Administration.
“We offer medical assistance to these children apart from providing financial aid of $535 to $640 per month for a child, depending on age and other criteria,” said White-Gray. “We try getting the children enrolled in schools and make sure that they receive all the help possible.
“Moreover we work constantly with the child’s biological parents and try uniting them with their kids,” she said.
But advocates for the poor argue that state help is confined to children in foster care and does not look after the needs of families who are thrust into the position of assuming custody of their wards.
John Esworthy is one of those people. When his daughter died of a drug overdose three years ago, the Howard County grandfather took his grandson under his wing. After retiring a year ago, Esworthy is now looking for a job again to help support the family he suddenly found himself with.
“The state used to provide us with financial and medical aid for our child when we were foster parents,” said Esworthy. “But when we got legal custody of Robert, the state just simply said, ‘Goodbye, it was nice having you. You can now move on.’
“All the cash and medical assistance were cut off. That’s terrible and really unfortunate,” he said. “But at least my wife also works and we are pretty stable financially. I just shudder to think of the plight of those caretaker relatives who can barely make two ends meet.”
After the initial shock of hearing that her daughter had been arrested for drugs, “there was the question of my three grandchildren. What about them?”
How was she going to handle the responsibility of nurturing three growing children? Would she be able to feed them and her with the salary she received? Would she be able to fill the void that has developed in her grandchildren’s lives?
Despite those questions, she plunged ahead and is trying to make the best of the situation.
“It pains me when I see that my grandchildren sometimes cannot get what they want,” she said. “Like my second grandson loves to dance. But, it’s difficult for me financially to send him for those dance classes that the school provides.
“At the same time, I want him to lead his life no different from other kids and so I make sure he goes for those classes,” she said. “But of course, I have to sacrifice something else to pay for those classes. It’s tough.”