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Many grandparents are taking another turn at parenting
Deena Campbell, right, has been taking care of grandchildren, from left, Amanda, 12, and Elisha, 14, since 1999 and Dustin, 11, since June 2009. The family also includes grandfather Joe Campbell and a menagerie of animals the children help care for. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Parenting the second time around

There are support groups in seven area counties for grandparents raising grandchildren and other types of family members raising children.

For more information about support and services, call Legacy Link at 770-538-2650.

Dawson/Lumpkin counties

When: 10-11:30 a.m. the second Wednesday of each month
Where: Lumpkin County Senior Center

Forsyth County

When: 6:30 p.m. the third Tuesday of each month
Where: Forsyth County Senior Center

Banks/Habersham counties

When: 10-11:30 a.m. the fourth Monday of each month
Where: Habersham County Senior Center

Hall County

When: 10-11:30 a.m. the fourth Wednesday of each month
Where: The Legacy Shoppe at Lakeshore Mall, Gainesville

Rabun County

When: Noon the fourth Friday of each month (lunch provided)
Where: Wiley Presbyterian Church

Towns/Union counties

When: 2-4 p.m. the second Sunday of each month
Where: Mountain Presbyterian Church, Blairsville

White County

When: 10-11:30 a.m. the third Wednesday of each month
Where: White County Senior Center

When Elisha Campbell, 14, found the baby turtle, it was about as big as a silver dollar.

She took it home, where it lives next to her bed. She feeds it fish food and lets it stretch its legs on the palms of her hands.

Behind her family's home a brood of chickens strut in their henhouse, where Elisha feeds them and fixes the lamp that keeps them warm. Cats of various ages climb up to be petted, and four gangly dogs race across the backyard after she hurls a stick for them.

Elisha says she wants to be an animal control officer when she graduates from high school, taking care of mistreated animals and making their lives better.

Which only makes sense, since it's what her grandparents have been teaching her by example since she was a baby.

When she was 3 and her sister, Amanda, was newly born, their grandparents, Deena and Joe Campbell of Gillsville, took temporary custody of the girls. Their parents - Deena and Joe's son and daughter-in-law — had gotten into trouble; he spent some time in jail and his wife had gotten involved in drugs and prostitution. As a result, they neglected their children, Deena Campbell said, and so the grandparents stepped in.

"She knows what happened; she was 3 when we got her, but even though she was that young, she still realizes what

happened," said Deena of Elisha, who today is a straight-A honor student at East Hall Middle School. "And that gives her doubts if her parents really and truly did care about her. ... Even though her father still comes around and sees them, but needless to say, if she had a mom right now, she'd say she doesn't have no mom."

Instead, Elisha, her sister Amanda, 12, and their cousin Dustin, 11, call their grandmother Nanny and have been flourishing in the warm home provided by their grandparents. And it doesn't matter that Dustin, who is the son of one of the Campbell's other four children, came into the fold about a year ago. The girls call him their brother nonetheless.

"He's closer than a cousin," Elisha said. "We pretty much do everything together."

Amanda, who stays respectfully quiet among the din of animals, kids and video games rumbling through the small home, said her grandparents have taught her some important values over the years.

"How to be respectful to people, not to be mean to others when we're at school," she said. "Our manners."

The Campbell children are actually part of a growing segment of North Georgia's children who are being raised by their grandparents.

In Hall County, according to 2008 U.S. Census estimates, close to half of all grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren. That's about 44 percent of the 4,724 grandparents in the county.

In nearby Forsyth County, 33 percent of the 19,230 grandparents — or, about 6,000 households — are the primary caretakers of their grandchildren.

For many, it becomes a choice of either watching their grandchildren enter the foster care system or take them in themselves.

Julia Jessee, kinship care coordinator for Legacy Link, said in much of the 13 Northeast Georgia counties the Area Agency on Aging serves, drugs play a significant role in a parent's departure. In rural areas, methamphetamine often causes the parents to lose their jobs or homes, neglecting their children in the process.

"There's every scenario that you could possibly imagine in the 13 counties of Northeast Georgia. They're all very complex; they're all very unique situations," she said. "I guess you could say the primary cause is the methamphetamine and the cocaine use in the mountains of North Georgia, and that is the catalyst that started all this. And it's becoming bigger and bigger.

"I don't find that alcohol is playing as large a role in it as is methamphetamine, and even down to marijuana. It starts with marijuana and it sort of mushrooms from there."

The number of children living with grandparents locally has gone up quickly in recent years, said Connie Stephens, executive director of the Hall-Dawson Court-Appointed Special Advocates, is a nonprofit organization that provides a voice for children as they move through the juvenile court system.

Almost half of CASA's abuse or neglect cases petitioned to the court come from an alert grandparent or third party, such as a teacher, Stephens said.

Across the country, she said, more than 6 million kids live with their grandparents, according to a 2005 Census study. "Which is about 8 percent of the kids in the U.S.," she said. "Which is huge."

"It happens in all socioeconomic groups, due to divorce, neglect, teenage pregnancy, incarceration of the parents - and of course, abuse or neglect," she added.

Jessee said she hasn't seen the number of grandparents taking custody of grandchildren trend up or down recently, but she did say the economy has an effect on the situation nonetheless.

Because the grandparents are usually retired when they begin caring for the children, they are usually on Medicare; that often means the children are uninsured, so health care can be a problem. And because grandparents don't receive the financial assistance that a foster parent would get, it puts a strain on their fixed incomes.

"Many of the grandparents — I would say 90 percent — are handling the situation beautifully," Jessee said. "The biggest scenario is these grandparents don't receive financial aid equivalent to that of a foster parent.

Grandparents "may get possible food stamps, they may get $50 a month, but that's a drop in the bucket compared with what it costs to raise these grandchildren."

Mike Carbonara and his wife, who live in Cumming, have been taking care of their grandson, Michael, since he was 5 months old; today he's 11. Although Michael's mother lived in the home for the first few years of his life, her problems with drugs and alcohol forced the Carbonaras to take temporary custody of the boy about eight years ago.

And although Michael has struggled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Carbonara said today he's a good student, getting A's and B's, and is helped by programs like a summer camp he attends sponsored by Legacy Link.

Legacy Link's services for grandparents and other relatives raising other family members also include gift cards to help with school supplies and regular meetings that allow the grandparents, aunts, uncles and sometimes great-grandparents to get help and advice from others in the same situation.

"My wife and I took him to the counselor, and there was a little stack of brochures for Kinship Care. And we thought, this might be something that could help us. So we started attending the meetings; that was a couple years ago," he said.

"It's also very good for everyone who's there. We're able to share things with other people there. You give information and typically it's going to help somebody."

Jessee said of all the counties served by Legacy Link's Kinship Care program, Hall County grandparents are the hardest to reach.

"They prefer to handle it among themselves. ... I think that it's just kind of accepted. You don't have them standing there, looking at the government saying, ‘What are you going to do for me?'" Jessee said.

But once the grandparents attend a meeting, she said, it changes everything for them.

"They are so happy that they've come forward," she said. "The grandparents come into these meetings, they're very sad. But once they realize there's a whole table full of people in the same situation as them, they start sharing.

"It's a way for the grandparents to share resources and realize they're not alone."

Stephens added that being a parent a second time around can add a lot of stress, and it's important to reach out if you think you need help.

"It may affect their health and finances, and the issue of medical care is an issue. And they're stressed by their own dreams of retirement. Their social life changes and there's a whole emotional toll," Stephens said. "But by and large, the majority of grandparents that we recommend get custody of the children, they get a greater sense of purpose in their life and they say the kids make them feel young and active again."

Carbonara said he and his wife plan to remain Michael's guardian for the time being. Michael's mother has been in Alcoholics Anonymous for about eight years, drops by to see her son on her way to work and even has him stay at her house some weekends.

"Whenever we hear of anybody or talk to someone in the same situation, I try to promote (Kinship Care) because it's great," Carbonara said. "But a lot of people, they want to keep private about this thing. It's not something they want to get out in the open, and that's not good."

Deena Campbell said her kids sometimes feel like outsiders at school events, when other kids have their parents with them. But she has some assurances for the children.

"It makes them feel sort of out of place when things like that happen, but I tell them, you've got as much love, even more love, than really you have with your own parents," she said. "Because you've got your two grandparents there that love you more than a parent can. That's the way I see it."