LEVANT, Maine — When Wendy Taggart and her husband, Chip, built a dream home for their retirement years, that dream did not include raising a child there. But just a few months after they moved in, nearly eight years ago, their 15-month-old granddaughter, Kaylee, moved in, too — and she stayed.
Like thousands of “grandfamilies” in large and small communities across Maine, the Taggarts and their extended family feel the impact of this arrangement in many ways — financially, legally, socially and emotionally.
“We just do the best we can, day by day, and we try to maintain all the family ties,” Wendy Taggart, 51, said. Despite the many challenges, they don’t look back. They know they made the right decision under very difficult circumstances.
“I had been taking Kaylee every weekend almost since she was born,” Taggart said in a recent conversation on the back porch. That’s because her son Michael and his girlfriend, Anna, were having “addiction-related difficulties,” she said, and Taggart was concerned for the baby’s safety. She kept hoping Michael and Anna, who also were caring for Anna’s two older children from earlier relationships, would get their lives together. Instead, it became increasingly clear that their relationship and their lives were rapidly spinning out of control.
After a series of unsettling events, the young parents abruptly announced they were taking the three children and moving to South Dakota. Kaylee was just 15 months old.
“On Christmas Eve, I got a call,” Taggart said. “Michael said, ‘Mom, we’re leaving tonight.’” At that point, she said, “the family all rallied around. Everyone wanted to keep those three kids here.”
With the hasty support of Anna’s mother and Taggart’s former mother-in-law, Taggart offered the young couple a last-minute deal.
“I said to them, ‘Leave the children here in Maine. And when you get settled in South Dakota and have jobs and a place to live, I will bring them to you.’” Within a just a few minutes, she said, they agreed. Baby Kaylee would stay with Wendy and Chip. Her older brother and sister would stay with other nearby family members.
Michael and Anna made the move to South Dakota, but Michael returned to Maine shortly afterward. Kaylee, however, stayed with her grandparents.
“He told us he wasn’t capable of having custody of Kaylee, so we went to probate court and got legal guardianship,” Taggart said. Michael now lives and works in the Bangor area, pays modest child support and sees his daughter weekly.
Anna died three years ago, Taggart said, without elaborating.
Now 8 years old, Kaylee fills the spacious, ranch-style house with youthful energy. Her cuddly pink blanket and Wii Gamepad inhabit the sofa. Her bedroom is a jumble of pink clothes, pink toys and pink pillows. Her new mountain bike — pink, white and purple — is in the garage. An above-ground pool and a safety-netted trampoline signal warm-weather fun in the grassy yard.
But raising a grandchild is not all fun and games. No matter how well-intentioned the decision to remove a child from the care of her parents or how loving the grandfamily home, the difficulty for everyone can be immense.
Grandfamilies: Layers of complexity
There’s nothing new about grandparents raising their grandchildren, according to Bette Hoxie, executive director of Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, a nonprofit organization with offices in Orono and Saco. The organization provides support services and educational resources to families coping with the challenges of caring for foster children or adopted children, including many grandfamilies and other kinship placements.
“This is something that has gone on forever, since time began,” she said. “When young families experience dysfunction, relatives intervene to care for the children.” Children generally, though not always, are happier and fare better when they stay in the care of their families, Hoxie said, instead of being placed in unrelated foster care.
In Maine, she said, there are thousands of households in which grandparents are the primary caretakers of their grandchildren. Many of these are informal arrangements that do not involve state agencies and therefore are not well-tracked. Others are more regulated cases that included the intervention and oversight of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which seeks as a policy to keep children in the care of their extended families if their own parents are unable or unwilling to care for them.
But formal or informal, Hoxie said, the number of grandfamilies in Maine is rising with the increase in opiate abuse and addiction.
“These can be very intense situations that are really very difficult,” she said.
Chief among the challenges is the financial hardship of raising a grandchild, or grandchildren, at a time of life when many older adults are retired, living on fixed incomes or struggling to make ends meet.
“Many families who come to us for help are low-income,” Hoxie said, but even in households with more comfortable incomes, the impact of providing food, clothes, toys, dental care, medical care, sports equipment, school expenses and other routine costs of child-rearing can be profound.
Grandparents without guardianship status also may face legal and logistical problems, such as not being able to register a child for school in the community where they live or make health care decisions for the child. Grandparents who live in senior housing may be forced to relocate if they are caring for youngsters.
But perhaps the greatest impact is emotional, said Hoxie, and that impact is complex and multilayered. Issues range from anger and resentment toward the birth parents for not being more responsible to deep feelings of personal guilt and failure for not having raised more capable young adults. Grandparents may feel judged and stigmatized by their communities. Negotiating visitation with the natural parents and other family members can be fraught with tension and disagreement, especially if grandparents suspect the home environment is still unsafe.
The involvement of DHHS can make it easier for grandfamilies to navigate these shoals and access benefits such as MaineCare, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and social services. But DHHS also entails a level of oversight and regulation that some families find disruptive or invasive, as well as the possibility of losing a beloved grandchild to the official foster care system — so they operate instead under the radar.
At the University of Maine Center on Aging, assistant director Jennifer Crittenden said the challenges faced by grandfamilies are slowly gaining recognition. But too many families don’t know there is support available through agencies such as Adoptive and Foster Families of Maine, she said, and social service professionals in schools and state agencies often don’t recognize the overlapping needs of older adults caring for youngsters.
The Center on Aging provides training and certification in meeting the needs of multigenerational households and participates in a statewide network of regional support groups for grandfamilies and other kinship caregivers.
‘I just get tired.’
“It’s a lot harder taking care of a child in my 50s than it was in my 20s and 30s,” Wendy Taggart said. “People say, ‘Oh, that’ll keep you young,’ but guess what — I just get tired.”
For Taggart and her husband, Kaylee’s presence is a unlooked-for blessing that has brought new joy, energy and learning into their lives. But the challenges are real, too, including a tricky relationship with Wendy’s son and occasional tensions with the extended family. Sadly, she added, their own daughter, who was 12 when Kaylee moved in and now lives independently, still deals with the emotional fallout of being displaced as the baby of the family.
“It has caused her some trauma,” Taggart said. Another adult son is “doing fine,” she added.
They try hard to keep Kaylee connected with her half-brother and half-sister — Anna’s other children — but find those family ties wearing thin as time goes by.
They struggle financially, too, dipping into Chip’s pension to help defray expenses such as a $3,000 bill for some extensive dental work Kaylee needed. The possibility of his retirement seems remote as they contemplate 10 more years as her guardians, as does the freedom to travel.
“We didn’t have any grand thoughts about what we would be doing at this stage of life, but we did think we’d be able to just get up and go when we felt like it and now we can’t,” Taggart said.
They sometimes feel marginalized at school functions and realize they are unlikely to form lasting friendships with the young parents of Kaylee’s schoolmates. Their own older friends have trouble relating to their status as caregivers to an energetic young girl.
Taggart credits the extensive network of support groups and other services with helping her keep her equilibrium. She has also become an advocate and a resource for other grandfamilies coming to grips with the challenge of raising young children, including a great-grandmother in her church raising 5-year-old twins. “She should be retired, but instead she’s working two jobs and trying to make it work,” she said.
“It seems like such a wonderful thing to do, to be raising your grandchild,” Taggart said, watching Kaylee splash in the pool below the screened porch. “It can feel like you’re being given a second chance to be a better parent. But there is so much guilt, because that’s your child that’s messed up, and you’re always asking yourself, ‘Where did I go wrong?’”