Child care

Caring for grandparent carers

The woman wears a wide smile and the man offers his hand as he flings his thin ponytail to the side. Behind them stands a smiling, bright-eyed little girl in the doorway. But the little girl is not their daughter, she is their granddaughter. Like many older Australians Janice and David Young looked forward to spending their retirement relaxing but after taking full-time care of their 11-year-old granddaughter all that had to change. Every morning they make sure she is up, has had breakfast and is ready for school. David makes her lunch.  Janice drops her off to school. They are a happy family but just beneath the surface there is a history of trauma. 

Janice and David Young with their granddaughter. Photo: Supplied.

“Her mother had a 35-year history of mental illness, drug abuse and alcohol abuse,” Mrs Young says. On the night when the Youngs took their granddaughter into their care there had been a domestic violence incident involving their granddaughter and her mother. “We went over and we ended up taking her straight to Rockingham Hospital because it was what was classed as a non-fatal strangulation attempt.

“I was at my wit’s end but we just didn’t know what to do,” she says. “We kept hearing that the mother has rights, that it’s her child, and I just said to the policeman that came to the hospital emergency, ‘what can we do?’ And he said, ‘If I was you, I’d go to the Family Court. So we went home and grabbed a couple of hours sleep and by eight o’clock the next morning we were on the doorstep of the Family Court of WA in Perth, putting in an application for Taylor to live with us. It was fairly traumatic for all of us.”

Unfortunately, the Youngs’ situation is not unique. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, as of 2019, grandparent care is the fastest growing form of out-of-home care for vulnerable children in Australia. Bernice O’Keefe is another grandparent carer. As a single grandmother, O’Keefe tends to her grandchildren’s every need, from cooking meals and cleaning clothes, to dropping and picking up the kids from school. Looking after five children would seem daunting to the hardiest of parents let alone at the age of 65. Bernice is light-hearted, smiling and laughing as she describes the challenges that confront her and her grandchildren. But the smile fades from her face as she describes the circumstances in which she took her grandchildren into her care.

“We knew things weren’t going right between my son and his partner,” she says. “I got a phone call from one of my granddaughters that my son had his hands around my oldest grandson’s throat and she was all crying and scared.

Bernice O’Keefe and her five grandchildren. Photo: Supplied.

“I said right I’m coming and I went and got my other son and we went around there. A lot of things happened but we ended up getting Chase [my grandson] out of there and the other kids were crying that they wanted to come with me. And that’s how I ended up with the kids. I’m only in a three-bedroom Homeswest house so we turned the lounge room into another bedroom and three of the five kids slept in there for a year.”

Bernice and the Youngs’ are not alone when it comes to the traumatic situations in which their grandchildren came into their care. Maree Smith has a similar story. Mrs Smith and her husband have looked after their two grandsons from an early age. Although they are in their late teens now, Maree recalls the morning she found her two grandsons abandoned in a park like it was yesterday. “They were in a park at five o’clock in the morning, a freezing cold morning,” she says.

Maree Smith raised her two grandsons with her husband. Photo: Cain Andrews.

“And a friend of mine rang me and said, ‘Did you know the boys are out on the street? So, I went and picked them up and went straight to Department for Child Protection and we ended up with them from there. We found out that my son and the boys’ mother were on drugs. My son was taken into custody and ended up doing three years in jail and then the mother decided to take off and go to Broome.”

Wanslea, an organisation that runs programs to help communities and families with the help of government funding, in conjunction with Edith Cowan University and Curtin University, have recently released a report looking into the circumstances of grandparent carers and their grandchildren.

Wanslea’s Scarborough Office. Photo: Cain Andrews.

The Fairer Future for Grandchildren report surveyed more than 600 grandparent carers in Western Australia on the challenges of raising their grandchildren and their living circumstances. Wanslea research and development officer Dr Anita Lumbus, who helped put the report together, says grandparent carers play a critical role in providing security and love for their grandchildren and keeping them out of foster care.

“From the research, a key finding was that grandparents report immense satisfaction in their caring role but it does come with huge impacts and sacrifices,” she says. “Another one of the key findings was related to experiences of poverty. The majority of grandparent carers in the research reported that they live below the poverty line.”

According to an ABC news story from 2017, grandparent carers have had to downsize and sell their homes, take out loans and withdraw their superannuation to cover the expenses of raising their grandchildren. This is also reflected in the Wanslea report, with grandparent carers commenting they needed to withdraw their super to support their grandchildren. The Youngs’ are no exception when it comes to the financial stress that grandparent carers take on. Like most children that come into care, their granddaughter came to them with nothing.

Infographic: Cain Andrews.

“One of the hardest things for us at the beginning was you suddenly have a child arrive with nothing except the clothes on their back,” Mrs Young says.“We didn’t even have a bed for her and we had to go out and buy a bed, had to buy a mattress, clothes, toiletries, little cupboards. We had to go into debt, take out a loan to do that. We’ve had to make withdrawals from our meagre super to help finance some of the things that Taylor does like swimming lessons, that sort of thing.”

“Otherwise, we’re on an age pension, we won’t be able to afford it. It’s just so sudden, the impact of it, that you’re battling to try and set something up so the child feels safe and secure and you don’t really get any help from government departments in that phase.”

Maree Smith and her husband have had a similar struggle with their finances while raising their two grandsons. “They didn’t have anything with them when they came to us except their school uniform so we had to go out and buy all their bedding, all their clothing,” she says. “Our plan was to travel. I’d worked for years and years my husband worked and we saved to have all this money put away which now we haven’t got because it all went on the boys.”

Dr Lumbus says another struggle grandchildren and their grandparents must contend with is disability and mental health issues. “The research found that children enter care with trauma and all of the grandchildren in the study reported having at least one adverse health condition, and this poses additional stresses for grandparent carers,” she says.

According to the Wanslea report, nearly a third of children in the care of their grandparents have at least one disability or mental health issue, with some having as many as 10. All of O’Keefe’s grandchildren struggle with disability, including foetal alcohol syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and epilepsy.

“There’s three with epilepsy, two with ADHD and three with FASD,” she says. “Within 10 days of having [my grandson], I realised he couldn’t read and that he had epilepsy. My daughter had epilepsy so I recognised straightaway what was happening with him and got him to an appointment at Fiona Stanley and we got him on medication. And a couple of years later, I think he was probably 12, the paediatrician said to him, ‘Do you understand what that is?’ And he said, ‘No,’ and she explained it to him. He was very quiet when we left. And I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And he goes ‘so because my mum drank alcohol, this is why I’m like the way I am and I can’t read?’ I did try to soften it a bit by saying years ago women didn’t know that that happened but she did know. I just didn’t want to hurt him. He didn’t need to think that his mother deliberately did this to him.”

Infographic: Cain Andrews.

While the circumstances in which grandparents and their grandchildren live and the challenges they face can seem insurmountable there are people who recognise and want to help this mostly unacknowledged cohort of carers. iDareDream is a charity organisation which aims to help support grandparent carers through funding extracurricular activities for their grandchildren, which could be anything from theatre and arts classes to martial arts training. Founder and Director of iDareDream, Virginia Huupponen, a former high school teacher, says she has always had a passion for helping children. Huupponen says kids being able to participate in an activity of their choice is important for their self-esteem and self-growth.

“We’ve had some enormous success,” she says about the engagement the grandchildren have had in the activities. “We had a young boy who had no interest in participating with the theatre group but by the end his grandmother said he was standing two inches taller and the theatre group asked him to come back as volunteer staff for the next 18 months. So that that was a really clear indication to me that if we could find the right match that it could have a profound effect on a child’s life.”

Bernice O’Keefe says that iDareDream has helped her financially through supporting her grandchildren in extracurricular activities. “Because the girls do dance twice a week, going into kickboxing or karate was just going to cost way too much for five different kids going to five different things,” she says.“So Virginia said ‘well, we’ve got vouchers we can help them with’ so they went to the ‘ifly’ and they had a great time. “It’s really hard to be able to afford to take five kids somewhere to do something costs you an absolute fortune.”

The Youngs’ say iDareDream has provided them with financial and emotional support. “Well, they’ve helped us enormously through Virginia, she’s given us a lot of hope,” Mrs Young says. “Of all the people we’ve dealt with, she’s been the most sincere. And she’s given us some hope and encouragement that we don’t have to just sit at home and do nothing, that we that we can think about signing her up to do things. Just being able to see other people in the same situation that we’re in, it makes you think, “Oh, I’m not alone, and there’s someone looking out for you,” Mr Young says. “They’ve done wonders with personal contact and their genuine interest in our family. It’s done a lot to give us optimism and to get us moving.”

Although charities like iDareDream help support grandparents and their children, Dr Lumbus says more recognition and government support is needed to lift these families out of poverty. “Grandparent carers and their children have the fundamental right to live free from poverty, be secure and supported, and a change at the policy level is essential for that to occur,” she says. “We need government action.”

The sentiment is shared among the grandparent carers who also believe that it shouldn’t be up to charitable individuals to fill the gap; that government should do more to help support them. “The best thing we could do is get financial help from the government, more backing, more help with medical issues with the children,” O’Keefe says. “We’re saving the government a lot of money by looking after our grandchildren. They are our grandchildren but otherwise they’d be in foster care and costing them a lot more money.”

Janice Young says the support she and her husband get from the government is “abysmal”. “It’s very disappointing,” she says. “It took us quite a while to find out that there was any financial support, because it’s not easy to access. You have to find out by trial and error and word of mouth if some other grand carer happens to share their experience with you. We wouldn’t have it any other way but we feel we’re being financially punished for taking this on.”

Dr Lumbus says Wanslea’s research suggests there are some policy changes at the state and federal level of government that could be implemented to improve the lives of grandchildren living with their grandparents. “One of the things we’re calling for from this report is a state-based subsidy to provide a regular, equitable means of support and in doing so make grandparent carers more visible and thus embed them in the service system,” she says. “We’re also calling for grandparent care advisors to be provided in care services, including the Departments of Communities, Health and Education and a specialist legal service within community legal centres with expertise in Family and Children’s Court. Some of the other calls to action at the state level include creating an evidence of care system to facilitate access to education and income support and at the federal level, we’d like to see the Family Tax Benefit reformed so it sits with the child rather than the parent. We think this is a significant human rights issue for which policy change is needed.”