INDIANAPOLIS — Sixteen years ago, Jack Davidson and his wife, Louise, became guardians of their 3-year-old step-great-grandson, Jerry.

A preschool director suggested testing the energetic youngster, and Jerry was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum.

“When we first got him, we weren’t sure what we had,” Davidson recalled. “He was hands-on 24/7. … It wasn’t something that we were quite used to.”

Then in his late 50s, Davidson decided to become a parent again, accepting the caretaking responsibilities for Jerry, now 19. Jerry’s parents had struggled with addictions to drugs and alcohol, prompting Davidson to seek legal guardianship, he said.

“We asked for this,” Davidson said. “We could have said no, and (Jerry) would have gone into the system. … But we chose not to do that because (he is) family.”

Louise Davidson died 11 years ago, making her husband Jerry’s sole caretaker.

“Living on a fixed income is one thing because there’s all kinds of expenses out there. But you try to clothe a kid, feed a kid, pay for educational experiences. … It’s not cheap,” Davidson said. “It’s a different world than when I raised my kids 40, 50 years ago.”

Connecting with parents at Jerry’s schools didn’t work either.

“I went to PTA meetings and everything else, but I really felt out of place because I’m 20, 30 years older than most of those parents in there,” Davidson said. “They couldn’t relate to me for the most part, and they didn’t have a clue why I was there.”

GRANDPARENTS AS PARENTS


There are thousands of families in situations like the Davidsons, at least 60,179 grandparents in Indiana are raising grandchildren, according to an August presentation on kinship care from the Indiana Department of Child Services.

The Indiana foster care website has a link for kinship services that includes financial resources such as food pantries and utility assistance, as well as a guide for awarding children with allowances.

Kinship care carries an extra burden for families, especially grandparents on fixed incomes with limited support systems caring for grandchildren. The DCS presentation in August showed that the number of families has increased because of the opioid epidemic, but bureaucracy makes getting assistance difficult.

“The emotional burden that these families are carrying is a real elusive need,” said Angela Smith Grossman, assistant deputy director of field operations for DCS.

GROUP EASES BURDEN

To address the emotional burden, Jack Davidson and other grandparents in Wabash County joined the local Parenting A Second Time Around (PASTA) organization.

“Before, it was a real struggle because there was nobody that knew what we were going through,” Davidson said. “We’re raising this kid and going through that at our ages.”

Dav idson decided to check out the first meeting of Wabash County’s PASTA group after seeing a flyer in Sunday School, but he had reservations about getting a lecture from somebody who probably didn’t understand his family’s situation.

“We were all there for the same reason. We’re all raising grandkids or a second or even a third generation. … And all that was because of drugs and alcohol,” Davidson said. “It’s like that Vegas thing, ‘What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’ … What we talk about in PASTA stays in PASTA.”

Four years later, Davidson still attends the group, where participants can hug, cry or yell about the parenting struggles they face.

“It’s an amazing group. I wish more people would get involved,” Davidson said.

Madeline Spring, the trained therapist who leads the group, said that establishing a place where people can freely discuss their frust rations without fear of judgment is a core part of PASTA.

“It’s that feeling like, ‘This is a safe space where I can share the good, the bad and the ugly without judgment. You can celebrate with me, but you can also grieve with me. You can also be angry with me,” Spring said.

She described members in the group discussing employment past retirement to make ends meet and suffering from the health issues that come with old age. Depending on each family’s situation, parents’ involvement or lack of it might be a stressor.

“Even going through the legality of making sure that the kid is stable and secure in their environment, things like that can be a big stress,” Spring said. “The trauma around a lot of the reasons why they are taking care of the kids, whether it is death related or drug related. … That trauma makes a huge impact on the whole family life.”

STATE COMMITTEE


After hearing the August report from the Department of Child Services, Rep. Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, passed a bill to establish a Kinship Care Oversight Committee to study the issue and make recommendations to the DCS.

“This is a great step forward to help mend some of the difficulties that come with kinship caregiving,” Summers said in a released statement. “The Kinship Care Oversight Committee will help determine the needs of this community by gathering data and forming policy recommendations that will lead to keeping more Hoosier families together and fewer children in our foster care system.”

Aside from the financial stresses that families face, DCS advocated for more support groups such as PASTA and legal assistance to navigate the difficulties of filing for guardianship.

While the state studies the issue, Davidson and tens of thousands of other Hoosier grandparents are scrambling to take care of the day-to-day needs of their grandchildren.

Davidson is trying to keep Jerry on track for the future, encouraging him to consider training in a trade. Having PASTA as a constant support group, available 24/7 through text, provides a dependable safety net.

“There were a lot of things I didn’t know that I learned the hard way,” Davidson said. “There are others that can share all the joys, all the happiness, all the grief, all those kinds of things. We’re there, and we can share.

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