‘We make it work’: Philly grandparents, advocates push for better programs and policies to help grandparent caregivers

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Philadelphia grandparents are raising their grandchildren at a higher rate today than two decades ago. Sheila Johnson of Manayunk raised three of her daughter’s children since they were infants. They are all now young adults.

Johnson was among the 30% of grandparents in Philadelphia who are caregivers for grandchildren younger than 18, according to the Census Bureau. That amounts to about 45,000 children living with their grandparents.

“I really built my life around them,” Johnson said.

Like many, Johnson’s path to becoming a caregiver began suddenly. Her grandchildren’s biological parents were deemed unfit. Not wanting to go into too much detail, she said her daughter had mental health issues.

“Just think of it, we’re being four parents. We’re being mom, dad, grandma, granddad,” Johnson said.

She remembers the moment she got the call from a “Miss Johnson at DHS” while sitting at her desk at Temple University.

“‘Could you take your granddaughter?’ I’m like, ‘Who is this?’” I was in shock,” she said.

The DHS official told her that if she did not get her four-month-old granddaughter, the baby would be placed in Child Protective Services. Johnson rushed out of work to pick her up.

But she was not ready for the cascade of legal paperwork, court appearances and the lack of clear guidance for grandparents. Round two of parenting was different. Although she had plenty of love to give, the logistics of grandparenting were confusing.

She downsized her car, put her plans to get her college degree in social work on hold and focused on the children.

“When they came into my care, I had no idea what to do,” she admits. “There’s no book for it.”

Johnson began searching and found the local organization Connectedly. Formerly known as Supportive Older Women’s Network (SOWN), Connectedly has served the older community for the last 40 years.

Shelia Johnson admires a photo herself with her granddaughter, one of three of her grandchildren she’s raised. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

On Feb. 10, it will host its first event in 2024 with its new name, bringing grandparents together to meet one another, make Valentine’s Day crafts and create their own vision boards for what they want or need.

In January 2024, it was rebranded to respond to community needs and connect more of Philadelphia’s older residents with resources, which included caregiver networks and programs. The organization provides free help through their programs and aims to reduce loneliness by building networks among other grandfamilies. Events like the one on Saturday are a response to growing requests.

Connectedly staff first caught wind of the increased number of grandparents becoming caregivers almost 20 years ago, and it has been growing ever since. Marypat Tracy, executive director at Connectedly, and her staff noticed first-hand that more grandparents were calling in and requesting help navigating complicated court processes and managing the kids’ health and school appointments.

Research shows that is true. Grandparent-led families increased by 22% between 2000 and 2011 nationwide, according to the latest available data by Pew Research Center.

Often, they take on the responsibility willingly and without question, like Johnson.

“I would do it again,” Johnson said. “It’s a commitment of joy. It’s a commitment of pain. I have no regrets.”

  • February 9, 2024
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