ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — After raising her own daughter, Connie Compton and husband Mark Compton anticipated being doting grandparents who would spoil their grandson when he came to visit.
Instead, they found themselves in the role of having to raise him.
“He’s been with us since he was a baby,” said Connie Compton, 64. “His mother, my daughter, had some substance abuse problems and the father was not around.”
The mother and baby lived with the grandparents for a while, but eventually the mother’s continued drug abuse made that living arrangement difficult. The mom left and the baby remained. He’s now 16.
“I wasn’t about to let someone else raise my grandchild,” Compton said.
Thousands of grandparents across New Mexico find themselves having to raise their grandchildren because the parents are unwilling or unable to do it themselves.
As a result, grandparents can become financially stressed, alienated from their now independent friends, and adopting a lifestyle that revolves around their grandchild’s school, after-school activities, weekend soccer games, family-oriented vacations and visits to pediatricians, dentists and orthodontists – essentially reliving their first child-rearing experiences.
On Friday, about 200 grandparents attended the “Parenting the Second Time Around” conference at the Barelas Senior Center. There, they learned about local programs that can provide them with support, resources and assistance. Among the main sponsors of the conference were Methodist Children’s Home Family Outreach, AARP and the city of Albuquerque.
The Comptons are among the nearly 6,600 grandparents in Bernalillo County who are raising grandchildren, according to 2010 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Statewide, there are more than 71,200 children under age 18 living in households headed by grandparents or other relatives.
That represents nearly 14 percent of the total number of children living in New Mexico. About a quarter of the grandparents live in poverty.
Among those leading workshops was Larry Kronen, senior staff attorney for Pegasus Legal Services for Children, who addressed issues such as legal authority, power of attorney, guardianship, adoption and public benefits for children living in kinship care.
Substance abuse is by far the most frequent circumstance that prevents parents from caring for their children, though other common causes include parental death, incarceration, chronic unemployment, and physical and mental illnesses, said Kronen.
However, it has become increasingly important for grandparents to have documentation from the parents, the courts or the Children, Youth and Families Department clearly spelling out their role, he said. Such documentation is necessary for enrolling a grandchild in school, accessing medical services, applying for financial aid and protecting the grandparents from legal repercussions from those who might question their authority – often the child’s parent.
For some families, a short-term power of attorney with limited legal authority works fine; for others, a long-term legal guardianship with more sweeping authority “can give the grandparents the tools to not only protect themselves, but also protect the child,” Kronen said.
Things worked out well for Connie Compton and her family. “I took my daughter to court early on and got legal guardianship, so there was never any question about authority,” she said.
Today, her daughter, who lives in another state, is drug-free and employed, and Compton and her husband, as well as their grandson, have a good relationship with her.
“It was tough love, but my daughter now says she’s grateful to me – of course, it took a long time.”