Developing Community Partnerships to Support the Skipped Generation Family

Linda L. Dannison, Ph.D., CFLE
Andrea B. Smith, Ph.D.
Western Michigan University
Kalamazoo, Michigan 

Erika Bolig, Ph.D.

Spectrum Health
Grandparents comprise a unique group of skipped generation parents. Recent statistics indicate that well over three million children currently live with their grandparents in a home where no biological parent is present. Parental alcohol and other substance abuse, incarceration, teenage pregnancy, the death of one or both parents, divorce, child abuse and neglect, and other conditions are contemporary problems contributing to this expanding family typology.
Elder individuals have always played an important part in family support roles. Recently, however, the large number of parents who are failing, for one reason or another, to effectively parent and meet the development needs of their children has given rise to an increasing number of "skipped-generation families". In these families the biological parents are absent from the home over an extended period of time and grandparents have had to step in to serve as the sole or primary caregiver for their grandchildren (Jendrek, 1993; Strom & Strom, 1993). Court systems may look to grandparents as an alternative to foster placement and grandparents may assume a primary caretaker role out of a sense of responsibility or affection for the grandchildren. In many instances a surviving grandparent must function as a single parent (Creighton, 1993).
Many grandparent caregivers find their personal resources stretched to the limit. Issues of health, financial stability, and parenting are prominent (Smith, Dannison, and Vacha-Hasse, 1998).Grandchildren in the care of grandparents often exhibit multiple needs. They may have been prenatally exposed to drugs and/or alcohol or experienced sustained abuse and neglect as a result of living with a drug-involved parent.Some act out inappropriately while others cope by becoming withdrawn, nonverbal, or "too good to be true".Feelings common to grandparented children include grief and loss, guilt, fear, embarrassment, and anger (Smith et al., 1998).

A research partnership was formed in Fall, 1999 between Kent County Head Start, Spectrum Health Services, Cedar Springs Public Schools and Western Michigan University. Funded by two private foundations and under the guidance of a 20 member Advisory Board, this pilot project provided services for custodial grandparents, their preschool grandchildren and early childhood personnel. All three populations participated in pre- and post-test assessments to determine the effectiveness of the services provided. Grandparents from both rural and urban sites were randomly placed in treatment and control groups and were invited to participate in an eight week program focused on providing educational and support services.

Topics covered in the grandparent support groups included understanding your "not so new role", promoting personal well being, refining parenting skills, building relationships, working with school and community, managing finances, navigating the legal system, and planning for the future. The grandparent support groups met weekly for two hours and were led by two facilitators.

A second component of this project included providing services to children who were living in a home with grandparents present, or who were actively parented by their grandparents. Services for custodial grandparents are becoming increasingly common but programs for children who live with grandparents remain virtually non-existent. Grandchildren participated in a series of eight educational classes, held at the same time as the grandparent support groups. Session topics focused on enhancing self-esteem, appreciating diverse family types, making friends, and the five emotional themes common to grandparented children (Smith, Dannison & Vacha-Hasse, 1998). These sessions were also led by two teachers. Grandparents were kept informed of daily topics that were covered during the children's sessions and also were provided follow-up literature and interactive activities to use at home with their grandchildren.

A third program component focused on educating early childhood personnel (teachers, teacher aids, social workers, psychologists, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, administrators, etc.) about the unique strengths and challenges associated with grandparent-headed families. Strategies for enhancing communication, educating grandparents about child development, locating appropriate community resources, and adapting curriculum were presented during a series of three half-day in-service workshops. Educators actively shared their own professional experiences while working with grandparents and developed strategies to more effectively work with both grandparents and grandchildren.

This resource exchange will present guidelines for creating community partnerships, share curriculum developed for the project, and review results obtained from each of the three populations . What began as a local effort to provide resources for skipped-generation families emerged as a successful comprehensive program of services for custodial grandparents, preschool grandchildren, and educational professionals. The success of this endeavor will be measured by the numbers of grandparent-headed families whose life circumstances are positively impacted by the results of this project. Cooperative work and communication by groups of professionals and lay persons resulted in a dynamic solution-oriented partnership.