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Life is ?grand' for some children

By Ed Brock

It's not what Bill and Cathy Heinrich had planned for the beginning of their golden years, finding themselves with two young children to care for.

"We're at a point where we want to be planning our retirement," Cathy Heinrich said.

Their daughter's two children, 8-year-old Keith and 9-year-old Sabrina, have been living with them for the past four and a half years since the children's mother was no longer able to care for them.

And the Heinrichs are far from alone in being "re-parented." The Clayton County Aging Program has put together "Breakfast Talk," a support group for grandparents and other relatives who are now raising related foster children.

"We say Breakfast Talk is the talk of the town," said Angela Ethridge, a case manager with CCAP.

Clayton County Juvenile Court, the Georgia Department of Human Resources and other agencies on the state and federal level have joined together to form "Grandparents Raising Grandchildren a Clayton County Alliance," a program designed to help this growing demographic that was revealed by the 2000 U.S. Census.

"There was an unusual number of grandparents raising grandchildren in the South, particularly the Southeast," Etheridge said. "In the state of Georgia Clayton, DeKalb and Fulton counties were just off the charts."

According to the census there were more than 7,000 grandparents living with grandchildren in Clayton County alone, and in nearly 3,000 cases the grandparents were the sole caregiver. The entire population of people over 65 in the county was 13,263 at the time of the census.

Clayton County has been made a demonstration project for the state to organize a program to help the "re-parented" grandparents in the county. The services to be provided include information and referrals on early intervention services and legal, housing or educational support, free tutoring, health services, child behavior assessment, help with utilities and more.

Ethridge said their eventual goal to have an actual resource center where the relative caregivers can go to get these services, and she said the county commission has promised to provide a space in a county building for the center, but they don't yet know where.

The reasons why children end up in their grandparent include mistreatment or neglect by their parents, parental substance abuse, incarceration of the parent, child abandonment, medical conditions, mental illness of the parent or death of the parent.

"Those are subjects you might not feel comfortable talking about," Ethridge said, and as a result many people in that situation don't realize that there others in the same position.

And they also don't know that there is a group like Breakfast Talk, but that's one reason it exists.

"It helps to know that you are not out there all alone," Cathy Heinrich said. "It just helps to talk."

The Heinrichs prefer not to discuss the exact reason why they took custody of Keith and Sabrina. But they don't expect to be relieved of the duty any time soon.

Until then they have to re-learn how to be parents and not just grandparents.

"The needs today are much different from when our children were young," Cathy Heinrich said.

The technology is different, Heinrich said, and there is more peer pressure.

And the Heinrichs themselves are different.

"Their energy level is so great," Bill Heinrich said. "When our kids were that age we didn't have a problem with it, but at our age there's just no way you can keep up with them."

For Cynthia Scott, a 51-year-old single woman now taking care of her 2-year-old and 3-year-old grandchildren, getting good child care is a big problem.

"With two toddlers it is extremely expensive," Scott said.

Scott, who attended her second Breakfast Talk meeting on Friday, says she wants to see more financial support from the county, state and federal government. Child care assistance and food stamps are given out based only on income, she said, and they don't consider the unexpected expenses people in her position face.

"As long as you have the children the support should be there," Scott said.

Breakfast Talk meets on the second and fourth Friday of every month at the Clayton County Senior Center on Riverdale Road. For more information call Ethridge at (770) 603-4059 or send e-mail to KinshipCare@hotmail.com.