Patricia Bagley and her visitor sat on plastic chairs on the lawn in front of her modest rural house one recent overcast May morning. Two gnarl-barked trees, a black walnut and a cherry, graced the far end of the lawn. From the backyard came the muted whine of yardwork -- a couple of Bagley's young friends had come over to whack down all the wild grass that sprang up after the recent rains, and to rototill her garden plot.
Bagley, a small, trim woman of 71 with expertly fluffed salt-and-pepper hair and nary a wrinkle in her smiling face, was in her gardening clothes -- blue jeans, a pink T-shirt and a light blue sweater. Her great-grandson, Eric Nelson, 5, lolled about on a decrepit, well-loved child's wagon parked a-kilter in the grass close by. He was listening keenly to the conversation. Right under Bagley's nose, Aubrianna, Eric's 2-year-old sister, sat on a bright red plastic potty chair. She jabbered baby talk, then said loudly, "I un down!"
"Are you done?" Bagley asked her.
"No," Aubrianna said in a small voice.
"No, I don't think you are either. You want to try some more?"
Aubrianna won that round, and Bagley lifted her off the chair. Eric raced off and returned, moments later, pushing a big plastic toy car for Aubrianna to scoot around in.
It seemed the idyllic visit-to-grandma's-house tableau. Even the drive out to Bagley's house is storybook -- over the Eel River and through the Shively woods to grandmother's house we go.
But Bagley's great-grandchildren weren't just visiting her. They had been living with her for a year now, and it was quite possible they'd be with her until they became adults. When the youngest, Aubrianna, turns 18, Bagley will be almost 90.
But, other than being a great-grandparent raising her great-grandkids, Bagley is not an anomaly. More grandparents in the United States are taking charge of their grandchildren. (And Bagley actually raised five of her grandchildren, as well.)
These grandparents face unique challenges. There's the stigma caused when people assume they're the reason their child failed as a parent (even if their other kids turned out fine). Often the grandkids have been traumatized. The kids' parents -- the grandparents' adult children -- sometimes are still in the picture, either being somewhat helpful or confusingly meddlesome. And the grandparents themselves, in addition to guilt, anger and sorrow over their own children's lives, often must carry additional burdens: age-related illnesses or low energy; a fixed income; transportation quandaries -- if suddenly they can't drive anymore, for example, is a child car seat, and a child for that matter, allowed on the senior bus? And what about medical insurance for the child?
According to U.S. Census community survey figures, in 2008 6.6 million children (9 percent of the kids in the U.S.) lived with a grandparent, and 4.4 million of those lived in the grandparent's home. Prior to that, the percentage of kids under 18 living in grandparent-headed households rose from 3.2 percent in 1970 to 4.9 percent in 2000.
How many grandparents are we talking about? Roughly 2.6 million, according to the 2008 U.S. Census figures (the most recent data available).
In Humboldt County, between 2005 and 2009, 2,329 grandparents were living with grandchildren under 18 and 981 of those grandparents were responsible for raising them. More than a third of those 981 grandparents had been raising their grandkids for five or more years.
A 2007-2009 survey gleaned that about 4.1 percent of kids under 18 in Humboldt County were living in grandparent-headed households.
Most of these grandparents were -- and are today -- going it alone, without government assistance, said Kelly Remington, director of the College of the Redwoods Foster and Kinship Care Education Program, headquartered on 6th Street in Eureka.
"That's the No. 1 issue: money," Remington said. And it is intimately tied to another big issue: how to retain a legal standing with the children to keep them safe from bad parents but still with family.
Remington said 80 percent of kinship care providers -- including grandparents -- are taking care of their relatives' kids informally. That is, they stepped in to take the kids out of a bad home situation before Child Protective Services could pick them up and put them in the foster care system. Thus, they don't qualify for foster-care money.
"The other 20 percent are what I call system-kinship providers," said Remington. "They agree to take the children after they have already entered the system."
That 20 percent in the system receives from $446 to $627 a month for fostering, depending on the child's age, according to Leslie Lollich, the public education and outreach officer with the county's health and human services department.
But even the 20-percenters face pitfalls. They might have had to fight for custody of the child in the first place. And if they become the child's formal guardian or adopt it within a year of becoming its foster parent, they lose their foster-care funding. But if they don't create a legal bond with the child, they run the risk of losing the child through adoption to another family.
The 80-percenters, meanwhile, may spend thousands hiring lawyers to create guardianships or get restraining orders, for instance, when they could have done these things cheaply on their own down at the courthouse. And some neglect to create any legal bond with the child, such as a guardianship, meaning they can't sign papers for the child at school, or the hospital, and leaving the door open for the parents to come take the child away at any time, ready or not.
Complicating the picture are the social challenges. Grandparents may feel guilt over their child's failure as a parent. They miss out on "spoiling the grandkids rotten then sending them home," as Remington puts it. They can feel isolated from their age peers, who might be more into RVing across the country than hanging around toddlers. And grandkids are different.
"These are not the same children that we raised," said Remington. "Society has definitely changed. Discipline is different -- we don't spank our kids anymore. We have cell phones, Internet. And I would say that, 40 years ago, 5th graders didn't date."
Remington, 53, was a young grandmother 17 years ago when she took custody of her daughter Laurel's two boys: Will was 3 at the time and Brad was 2. Laurel was addicted to drugs, and a year before, Brad had been seriously burned in a house fire that Will, just 2 at the time, had accidentally set playing with a lighter by the crib. Child Protective Services took the boys into custody, and Remington had to fight to have them placed with her.
"I had to go to court four times to get custody of my boys," she said. "One county social worker said to me, 'If you would've done a better job raising your child, we would not all be in the mess we're in now.'"
So Remington got her foster care license, which smoothed the process, and the boys came to live with her and her three younger birth children, who were 16, 7 and 3 years old at the time (and who grew into fine adults). Eventually she adopted the boys. Laurel had failed rehab, and eventually wound up in prison when a guy she was with killed somebody. She's still in prison, but has been sober for 10 years, and thanks her mom now for taking the boys.
"I'd say my daughter's healthy now," said Remington. "Now she co-parents the boys. I'm so proud of her."
It was a hard slog, raising the traumatized boys. Brad was born with a drug addiction, and his burn scars needed constant attention. And in the midst of her struggle, Remington got divorced and learned she had cancer.
The current CR Kinship Program grew out of a support service Remington and another grandparent, Margie Akin, started in Eureka back then to deal with the new issues they were facing.
Remington said the child welfare system is friendlier now -- in part, no doubt, because of the federal Safe Adoption and Families Act of 2000. That act requires that social service providers first look to family members as potential care providers for children who've been removed from their biological parents' home (they must still jump through the hoops -- a criminal background check, house inspection, drug testing and the like).
"But we still have a lot of issues," she said.
The No. 1 issue, she repeated, is money. If they're outside the system, or lose their foster care money because they adopted, grandparent caregivers (and other kin) can apply for money from such soures as TANF (temporary assistance to needy families) and MediCal.
"But it's not as much money," said Remington. "It's just ridiculous that kinship providers don't have access to the same resources as foster parents. I'm ready to march on Congress to get kinship families the help they need."
Meanwhile, the CR Foster/Kinship Care Program offers training, guidance and other support for caregivers. It also sponsors two grandparent groups, in Eureka and Crescent City. A third group meets in Fortuna and is associated with the senior center there. Carl Young, a Fortuna grandparent, helped start it five months ago.
One recent May afternoon, Carl Young sat on the back deck of his and his wife's large house in Fortuna with a sweeping view of green hillside beyond the fence. The patio table was covered in box-brown dahlia tubers, and Young's beaming gaze alternated between his whirlwind, chattering granddaughter, 18-month-old Emily Rose, and the long, tilled terraces against the back fence where later this summer a riot of dahlias would bloom.
"These are the last varieties we have to plant," he said, tilting his chin at the tubers. "Pom poms."
Young and his wife (who asked not to be identified) moved from Vacaville to Fortuna in 2004. Their three sons had flown the coop, and Young, 52 at the time, had been able to retire early at age 50 from his job as a research analyst with Caltrans. Before Caltrans, he'd worked for the state Department of Fish and Game's oil spill program for seven years, and before that he was in the Coast Guard for 18 and a half years and the Navy for two. And he is a Vietnam veteran. In fact, when they moved to Fortuna, he became heavily involved in veteran advocacy and helped start the North Coast's first Veterans Stand Down, a sort of one-stop-shop services day.
But he doesn't have time for that now, and he barely has time for the dahlia business that was part of their original retirement plan -- which also included relaxing, going out to eat whenever they wanted, traveling, hanging out with new friends... .
A few years after they moved here, however, their youngest son, who is autistic, met up with a woman and they got pregnant. The woman has major, diagnosed mental health issues, said Young. The Youngs convinced her and their son to live in an upstairs apartment in their house during the pregnancy so they could keep an eye on her.
"At times she was extremely violent," he said. "She had a tendency to run off."
Three days after Emily was born, they discovered that the mother had not been feeding her the bottles of milk that Young's wife had been sending up regularly.
"And she threatened to throw the baby downstairs," Young said. "The police had to come up here two or three times, when she assaulted my son or was just going a little wacko."
Emily ended up in the hospital for several days, a pound under her birth weight. The Youngs evicted her mother, who now lives in a care facility in Eureka, and their son found another place to live. Emily came home with them -- with both parents' approval, Young said. It was rough at first.
"After the baby came back from the hospital, everybody was worn out," his wife said. "Carl got the shingles, Emily got chicken pox and I got pneumonia."
"But we did it because we wanted to save this child's life," Young added. "And we didn't ever want to see the child fall into the foster care system, because she was our blood."
The Youngs decided to do a guardianship for their granddaughter -- it's more easily reversed than an adoption, in case their son someday becomes better able to care for her.
"I'm very proud of my granddaughter's father, because he's tried to do right on this whole thing, despite the autism," said Young. "He visits with Emily every day."
A cool breeze kicked up, and Young and Emily went inside. He got himself a glass of water and filled her sippy cup and held it to her mouth. She babbled and chirped at it, in between sips. Young's warm chuckles mingled with her happy voice. "Yea, you want more?" he asked her. "Ooo-ooo!" she answered. He laughed again.
"Wa la la la wa wa la la! Dada. Dada!" Emily said.
"'Papa,'" Young responded. "We're trying to teach her to say 'Papa' so it's more like 'Grandpa.'"
Emily grabbed a bunch of books and handed them to him quickly, one by one. He patiently held each up to show her the pictures and ask her about them. She grew cranky, and Young's wife took her away for her nap.
"I take the morning shift and my wife takes the afternoon shift," said Young. "At night we split the duty. It's been an interesting transition because, in a lot of ways, we don't mind rearing this child. I mean, talk about putting a new spark in the relationship, where you're both working together."
Young said for him it's actually like being a parent for the first time. He was away at sea most of the time when their three boys were growing up. "I missed out," he said. "Now I get to see the full blossoming of this creature."
It also helps that they don't have to rush off to jobs. But they worry that something might happen to them before Emily is grown up. Who would take care of her, if their son isn't up for it? Could she live with their son in Oregon, and his wife? They're still figuring it out. Currently, they just struggle to find good childcare so they can take breaks. And it took some wrangling to get Emily covered by his military medical insurance. But financially, they make do without most government services.
"We did get into Early Head Start, which is an excellent program," he said. "And we've met so many nice people who will give you resources to go to if you need them. Which is one of our biggest problems here -- people don't always know where to go to for resources. Early Head Start provides you with an in-home visitor. She shares some thing like, hey, there's a measles epidemic going on, or helps with goals and objectives, like getting your child to go through a certain hoop."
One thing he wishes he knew early on was that he didn't need to spend $5,000 on a lawyer to do the guardianship papers.
"A lot of these things should already be figured out for us," he said. "For instance, there is a resource manual that the Area 1 Agency on Aging puts out every year. And it covers a lot of senior services, like transportation and health and things like that. But there's absolutely no discussion for grandparents raising grandchildren."
"Aubrianna, you've got to sit on it," Bagley said to her great-granddaughter, kindly, who once again was trying out the potty chair. "I'm sorry, Aubrianna. Please try. It won't take long, OK? Good girl, baby. Good girl!"
Aubrianna protested mildly, in a high little chatter. She was tiny for her age; her parents hadn't fed her properly, Bagley said. But she was very bright.
"She doesn't want to be potty trained," Bagley said, smiling. "She grabs the diaper and hands it to me and says, 'I'm a baby!'"
Aubrianna, overhearing this, laughed gleefully.
Bagley is Karuk, as are her great-grandchildren. Her mom was born in Orleans and her dad in Happy Camp, and when she was a year old they moved to this land in Shively. There was a different house here then; it burned down when Bagley was a teenager. She graduated from Fortuna High School, married at 18, moved to Eureka, and had her first child at 19. She divorced her first husband after a few years, and he paid for her to go to beauty school. For 45 years, she operated the Wig-Wam Beauty Corner out of her garage. She and her third husband raised their combined five children, then two of her son's kids and three of her daughter's.
"My son went to prison for five years -- he robbed a pharmacy for his own prescription," she said. "And his wife didn't want to raise his previous wife's children, so I raised them. Then my daughter was on heroin, and she overdosed. It was a sad thing. Though it also was a relief, because she would go away and then kept coming back, and her kids were little then and it traumatized them every time."
She and her third husband had planned to retire here, and she was going to build an L-shaped porch on the front where she could sit and weave baskets, like her grandmother. But her husband died a few years ago. And then her grandson Eric's family crumbled.
"He was on heroin, trying to get off," Bagley recalled. "They moved a lot -- they kept getting kicked out of places. And I always helped them move." She looked at her great-grandson Eric, who was still listening intently, and asked him, "What was the name you gave that last place you lived in?"
"Cockroach Hotel," Eric said.
The family ended up on the street. When Bagley found them, she told the parents she wouldn't take them in, but she wanted to take her great-grandchildren.
She had to jump through a lot of hoops, and also faced that stigma of "You must have done something wrong." But she prevailed.
"The hardest thing was working with the kids' parents," she said. "They weren't interested in the kids. They just wanted to tell me what to do."
Four days a week now, she drives Eric into town to preschool. She also takes him to behavioral therapy regularly. "He was very streetwise when I got him," she said. "He learned all the bad things, how to steal and lie and panhandle. He didn't like panhandling because he had to sit forever. But [he and Aubrianna] knew I was on their side -- they were so happy when I got them here!"
She seemed quite content, herself, despite having to put weaving on hold.
"Raising kids -- it's the most rewarding thing you can do," she said. "It can be heartbreaking, too. Some grandparents I know talk about how they need a vacation from the kids. But I don't want a vacation without them. I enjoy them."
Her biggest fear is that something might happen to her before the kids grow up. Would their parents ever be able to step in?
"I told Eric never to be mad at his parents," Bagley said. "You can't be mad at somebody who's sick. I tell him he can't live with them because they're on drugs. And we pray every night that they get better. He makes sure grandma sits down and says the prayers with him."
The low rumble of the rototiller, out back, had stopped. It was time to go plant that garden, Bagley announced, excited. They were going to put in three kinds of zucchini, yellow crookneck squash, dark green squash, wax beans, green peppers, cucumbers, pickling cucumbers, and dill, basil and cilantro.
Eric jumped up, eager to get to it.
"He plants with me every year," she said. "I tell him and Aubrianna, 'We plant the seeds and then wait for the rain.' And they love it."
(Carol Harrison, a frequent contributor to the Journal, compiled some of the information in this story as part of a report she is preparing for the Area 1 Agency on Aging -- which, in turn, is working on a kinship-care documentary with KEET-TV, set to air later this summer.)