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Impacts of COVID-19 and other tragedies leave many Florida grandparents raising grandchildren: 114,000 American children lost at least one parent or custodial grandparent during the first 14 months of the pandemic

Darlene Gee was in a Palm Beach County courtroom for a family court hearing several years ago when she got a shock: Her granddaughter, faced with the loss of custody of her little girl and infant boy, had just asked a judge to give Gee legal authority to raise her infant great-grandchildren.

“I was like, ‘Me? Not me?’,” said Gee, now 66, of West Palm Beach. “At first it was devastating. But I kind of got over it, and everything began to fall into place.”

Gee is not alone. All over Florida, grandparents are stepping into the role of parent again, as drug overdoses, alcohol, the impact of the COVID-19 and tragic accidents leave children with no one else to care for them.

Some 139,542 grandparents are responsible for their grandchildren in Florida, according to an April 2021 report issued with major support from the Brookdale Foundation Group in partnership with Casey Family Programs, and with additional support from AARP, ChildFocus and the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption. ( )

More than half a million children in the Sunshine State are living with grandparents and other relatives. Nationwide, more than 6.1 million children are living with grandparents, according to Census data.

These grandparents can face daunting challenges, said Mary Ann Sterling, founder of Grandparents Raising Grandchildren of Brevard County, Florida, Inc.

Sterling, now age 86, founded the nonprofit after her daughter was killed in an auto accident and she was left to raise her grandson, Matthew. Now 38, her grandson serves as a member of her nonprofit’s board of directors. She estimates that one in 10 children now in Brevard County schools are being raised by grandparents.

The causes of grandparents taking on the responsibility of raising grandchildren are many, but the single biggest factor is drug and alcohol abuse, experts agree. In a recent two-week period, Sterling saw five cases in Brevard County alone in which drug abuse led to grandchildren being placed with grandparents. In two of those cases, drug overdoses killed a parent.

The COVID-19 pandemic is also a factor. A July 2021 National Institutes of Health (NIH) study ( ) found that more than 1.5 million children worldwide, including nearly 114,000 American children, had lost at least one parent or custodial grandparent during the first 14 months of the pandemic. State-by-state totals were not available.

Left to cope with grandkids, “these grandparents face challenges that they never dreamed of – unbelievable challenges,” Sterling said. These range from complications getting legal responsibility for their grandkids, dealing with the trauma that children experienced, getting the kids into school and of course, paying for it all.

The trauma of losing a parent – or being abandoned by a parent – can be long-lasting and require psychological and emotional therapy, according to the NIH study.

And some challenges are ones that grandparents might not expect – since, after all, they’ve already been parents once.

“It can be a shock to some people, because things are so different from when they raised their own children,” said Sterling. One of the most popular services offered by Sterling’s Brevard nonprofit is parenting classes, which delve deep into the challenges of parenting in the modern age.

One of the biggest challenges is arranging to take legal responsibility for the children. In Florida, grandparents often begin by getting temporary custody of their children, sometimes under the supervision of state agencies such as the Department of Children and Families.

Acquiring permanent custody of children can require overcoming significant legal barriers. Some family law attorneys advise seeking to have the grandparent appointed as guardian for their grandkids. State guardianship laws have undergone significant changes in recent years, and it’s best to seek advice from an attorney with experience in family and guardianship law.

Some grandparents, like Darlene Gee, legally adopt the children, a step that can be costly and time-consuming but which provides the grandparents the strongest legal foundation for caring for the children. It can also provide valuable psychological benefits for the children themselves, as Gee found.

When her granddaughter and grandson, now age 6 and 5, ask her about their family history, she tells them that she is their mother – which, legally, she is. Short and clear, the answer seems to meet their needs, she said.

It’s not unusual for children who’ve lost their parents to require counseling of some type, Sterling said. Recently she was invited to speak to a large group of school counselors. When she asked the counselors to raise their hands if they were providing counseling to children now being raised by kin, nearly every hand went up, Sterling said.

Sheer physical endurance can be a challenge, particularly for those grandparents facing significant health challenges. Experts advise eating healthy foods, getting regular exercise and setting clear boundaries – a benefit not only for the grandparent but also for the children, some of whom have lacked structure in their lives.

Financial challenges also are significant. Darlene Gee’s grandchildren have qualified for Medicaid but were denied SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps. She receives cash assistance of $417 a month for the two children – welcome assistance but not enough to cover the cost of raising kids these days, Gee said.

Gee also has received advice and support from YWCA of Palm Beach County, a nonprofit organization that for 100 years has implemented programs and services to support women, children and families in need. Many of their programs focus on empowering women, affordable housing, affordable child care and early education programs.

Both Gee’s grandchildren were able to attend YWCA’s Child Development Center which provides free, quality child care for low- to moderate-income families. YWCA is also providing Gee and her grandchildren $8,000 in financial support awarded by local foundations. The funds will help provide tutoring, swimming lessons, tennis lessons, karate and or other activities and financial needs of the family.

One good piece of recent news is the expanded child tax credit provided by the American Rescue Plan, recently enacted by Congress. The tax credit is available to grandparents raising grandchildren, and it can provide up to $300 a month for children up to six years old. To learn more, go to .

AARP also is fighting for the Credit for Caring Act, which would also provide additional tax credits for those grandparents raising grandchildren who require long-term care. To learn more, go to .

“There really is not enough help for grandparents,” Gee said. There’s the cost of tutoring for the kids, extracurricular activities fees at school, and many other associated costs. “It all costs money,” Gee sighs.

For more information on resources available to grandparents raising grandchildren, go to . State-by-state fact sheets offer lists of resources that grandparents can explore. It can also help to join a local support group such as those offered by Sterling’s Brevard nonprofit. These are so popular that the group now offers six groups, Sterling said.

Gee lists two other resources that don’t show up on the fact sheets – patience and prayer. “Stay praying,” she advises other grandparents in her situation. “There is hope. You got to have a whole lot of love and patience. You can’t give up on those children.”

Grandparents enjoying with grandchildren on tree house
Cavan Images/Getty Images/Cavan Images RF

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